Du Bois event Zoom bombed with racist slurs

Participants in an online event Sunday to honor W.E.B. Du Bois were jarred by a Zoom-bomber uttering racist slurs. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — A virtual event to honor civil rights pioneer and native son W.E.B. Du Bois on Sunday evening was “Zoom-bombed” by someone uttering racist slurs.

Great Barrington Police are investigating and the Berkshire County District Attorney’s Office was notified, according to Gwendolyn VanSant, vice chair of the town’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which held the event.

The intruder arrived just as the committee began its online version of the annual celebration to commemorate the dedication of the Du Bois Boyhood Homesite as a National Historic Landmark 51 years ago.

It also marked the renaming of the local middle school for Du Bois last summer.

Rattled, VanSant, the committee’s vice chair, took a deep breath, then continued what she hoped would still be “a beautiful evening” with various guests, including local civil rights leaders and two students representing the newly named W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.

“Wow,” VanSant said, also apologizing for the disruption. “That was quite a start.”

“Yuck,” someone said.

“These are the times we live in,” said Du Bois Middle Principal Ben Doren.

The first intruder arrived with the name “Charlie White” and “manycam” on the screen, followed by an image of a frog and several utterances of an anti-Black epithet.

A short time later, it was followed by the name “Ronald Adams” on the screen with some loud music. Soon after, a “Ronnie Z” appeared with a blast of music.

VanSant said she was able to remove them from the event, hosted through the town’s Zoom login.

VanSant immediately reported the incident to local police and Town Manager Mark Pruhenski. He said Wednesday that the incident was “very disturbing,” and that the town will work to prevent this from happening again.

“That behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our community,” he added. He said he could not comment further because the investigation is open.

Town Police Chief William Walsh did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The incident did not upend the spirit of the event to commemorate the place where Du Bois, one of the NAACP’s founders and a scholar, spent much of his youth on his grandfather’s property off Route 23.

“The rest of it was beautiful,” VanSant said.

It was a disquieting reminder of what lurks in Berkshire County, she noted, after a summer of protests and violence in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody in May, and attention to persistent injustices dealt Blacks for so long.

Nationally, it isn’t the first time that virtual gatherings have been bombed with racist messages, or hijacked for other reasons. Zoom has been criticized for its lack of security.

This month, a town hall held by Rep. Jahana Hayes, the first Black congresswoman from Connecticut, was interrupted by someone slinging racist slurs, for instance.

That racism crept into a small-town videoconference more than unsettled those gathered. Leah Reed, vice president of the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP, called it “traumatic.”

“It was damaging,” she added. “We should have safe spaces.” She also said it felt very “targeted, and very cowardly, because it’s easy to hide behind an IP address and the internet.”

Reed said she was amazed at how eloquently the students continued to speak despite the episode.

Noting a recent slew of racist episodes in South County that includes graffiti and school incidents, VanSant worries about what appears to be an uptick in “white supremacist behavior.” She said she felt vulnerable and frightened.

The Rev. Sloan Letman IV, who also attended the event, said that it is natural that the problem would migrate to virtual spaces during the pandemic.

“It’s a challenge when the public sphere changes mediums,” he said.

Letman, associate pastor at Cathedral of the Beloved in Pittsfield, said that, as one who grew up with video games, he is familiar with the cowardice of hiding behind technology.

“We’ve had trolls dropping N-bombs for years,” he said. “I’m a millennial and I’m a geek. If I told you how many times I’ve heard the N-word on XBox Live, I’d be a rich man.”

He said the anonymity that the internet provides brings out the worst, and that there is wisdom in the “sticks and stones” maxim from the nursery rhyme.

Letman suggested that it is the higher discourse that eventually leads to the good outcome, and that many gains are already in hand.

“When I think about these kids from Great Barrington say, ‘I go to the Du Bois school’ — that blows my mind; that is what we’ve been trying to get to. That power overshadows what happened.”

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871. On Twitter