Wednesday’s violence at the U.S. Capitol, for many Black residents of Berkshire County, served as a jolting reminder that notions of white supremacy run rampant through the nation.
“The laws might have shifted, but there have been generations of people who maintained the same mindset about the inferiority of people of color, that we are less than human, [that] this is ‘their’ country,” said Shirley Edgerton, a community organizer and cultural proficiency coach for Pittsfield Public Schools.
“This is just those generations of people coming out of the closet,” Edgerton said, “because they’ve been allowed to come out of the closet by the president and the leadership that’s been coming out of Washington.”
When supporters of President Donald Trump violently invaded the Capitol on Wednesday, some carried Confederate flags and neo-Nazi symbols, among other expressions widely seen as racist. The insurrection halted the certification of an election that made a Black woman vice president for the first time in U.S. history, and came in the wake of news that Georgia had elected its first Black senator.
Despite recent gains for Black representation, the actions many Black residents condemned as “domestic terrorism” proved to them that the nation never has truly toppled systems that uphold white supremacy.
“If I ever had a doubt, yesterday’s activities confirm the need for the NAACP and its mission,” said Dennis Powell, president of the NAACP’s Berkshire County chapter. “Because, clearly, anyone watching yesterday would end up with knowing that we have two forms of justice in our country.”
The apparent ease with which Wednesday’s largely white crowd overcame Capitol Police, many noted, contrasted starkly with the violent tactics many police forces, including Boston’s, employed against racially diverse protesters who demonstrated in support of The Movement for Black Lives.
Earl Persip III, the lone Black member of Pittsfield’s City Council, commented on the disparity in a Wednesday afternoon Facebook post. Sharing a photo of a white man sitting at the front of the Senate chamber, Persip wrote, “To make it here without dying is the perfect example of white privilege.”
Videos appeared to show some officers taking selfies with insurgents Wednesday. Fifty District of Columbia police officers and an unknown number of Capitol Police officers, though, were injured.
Keya Robertson, a 16-year-old Pittsfield resident, said she wasn’t surprised to see violence Wednesday but that if mostly Black protesters had instead challenged police, it would have been “a massacre.”
“The stereotypes of Black people are that when they get angry, they get aggressive and volatile,” Robertson said. “My parents taught me that if you’re angry, don’t make it seem like you’re aggressive and try to present yourself in a calm, respectful manner.”
To Olivia Nda, a 20-year-old Pittsfield resident who attends Howard University in D.C., Wednesday showed “how broken the system is.” She expressed hope, though, that time and day-to-day effort spent organizing could move the needle toward “justice for not just one type of people, but all people.”
Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and founding director of the Lee nonprofit Bridge, called Wednesday’s insurrection “another slap in the face,” comparing it to police killings of Black people since last spring and the disparate COVID-19 impacts on Black communities.
While she acknowledges that it has been a difficult and emotional moment for many, she urged more people to become involved in dismantling everyday “racist structures.”
“I’ve been really pushing white counterparts not just to blame Trump supporters yet again, but to see how really extreme things can get when everyone’s just waiting for someone else to address it,” VanSant said. “Really, everyone can participate in disrupting … the biases day to day in a workplace or any other type of institution.”
The failure of many Republican officials to condemn white supremacist groups or to repudiate unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, some said, is partly to blame for Wednesday’s violence. Some Republicans reversed course on attempts to overturn election results, but it was “too little, too late,” Powell said, alleging that the switch could have been motivated by mere political expediency.
Maya Richards, a Pittsfield resident who serves as Berkshire Roots’ senior manager of outreach and training and Bridge’s sustainability and justice program director, called for white people to educate themselves and start conversations in their circles.
“This country has never really had a truth and reconciliation process, like we’ve seen in South Africa, for example,” Richards said. “We know the other side is organized and dangerous. It’s structural, it’s systemic and there are so many different areas where we can work towards disrupting that white supremacist culture.”
Until there is widespread recognition of the extent of systemic racism, Powell said, racial division will continue.
“We’ve entered 2021 with the same problems and the same inhumanity to man that we ended 2020 with, so, we have a lot of work to be done,” Powell said. “Come on, America. Wake up.”