Community reels as police investigate racist graffiti covering Black Lives Matter sign
SHEFFIELD — Town police are asking the public for help in their investigation of vandalism of a Black Lives Matter sign at the heart of town, an act that has alarmed and devastated residents and the broader community.
A photo of the prominent sign — which sits on the town green next to Route 7 in front of the First Congregational Church — has spread on social media, showing it covered with a piece of cardboard masking the word "Matter," and writing that says, "Everyone should own a couple."
Town Police Chief Eric Munson III said Monday police sent the cardboard sign to the state's crime lab for analysis. And he plans to level the most serious charges he can against the offender, if caught.
Munson said he is horrified by the act.
"It's awful and I'm embarrassed that this happened in Sheffield," he said. "This isn't what Sheffield is about."
The Rev. Jill Graham, pastor at the church, reported it just after 9:30 a.m. Monday. Munson said given the rotating police patrols that roam the area through the night, the likely time of the offense was between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
It isn't the first time the sign has been targeted. Graham said the sign disappeared last week — someone had pulled it from the ground and propped it, undamaged, against the church. Her husband moved it back, but also reported it to police, she said.
The was done at a time when local school officials are investigating racist posts on social media.
The signs were defaced as the nation grapples with racism following the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.
Black Lives Matter signs are symbolic of unity with Blacks struggling with the effects of centuries of oppression, and of a modern political movement sprouting from the killing of Blacks at the hands of police and others.
This is why, given the nature of the crime and its larger context and implications, Munson says he will apply felony vandalism charges, and possibly more charges in consultation with the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office, so that police can "take this person into custody."
He said anyone with information can relay it anonymously.
Police are checking surveillance cameras in the area. The cameras at Gulotta's Mobil Station next door are trained on the pumps, and do not reach the town green area, Munson said.
It was Pastor Graham's husband who saw, on Monday morning, something covering the sign. He texted her a photo, put the cardboard in his truck, and took it to the police station.
Graham said Sheffield police are supportive. "I find our local police department work very hard to be the guardians that we want them to be," she said. "They took this very seriously."
Graham, who is on the Sheffield Pride Committee, said it was that group that decided to place the sign on the green in lieu of its second annual summer community celebration, given the pandemic. The sign also stands in support of efforts to prevent violence against trans women of color, she said. It received approvals from the town to keep the sign there for the duration of the summer.
Graham said that however painful, she sees the crime as an important reminder.
"It helps show our community that this is not just a big city issue; racism is present in the air we breathe," she said. "This is shedding a light on what is already present."
She said she has contacted local groups for support and to help open dialogue. She welcomes anyone in the community who is feeling distressed to come together. She also wants to apply this approach to the offender, and hopes for a healing, restorative justice.
The vandalism shattered the peace of a town family, already struggling for years with local racism, and at times, simply being different.
Nichole DuPont's daughter is 19, and Black.
She told her mother, "I truly fear for my life and I know I'm not being paranoid," DuPont said. "This lives in our house; it breathes in our house and it's heavy."
DuPont, a Sheffield native who returned to raise her family in the town, said she fears for her daughter's safety, and this is heightened by her having just received her driver's license.
Her daughter, a Mount Everett Regional High School graduate who just finished her freshman year of college, is a competitive boxer, and even so, fear remains. The Black Lives Matter sign was hopeful, and it surprised DuPont that Sheffield would tolerate it.
Seeing it defaced was painful for her daughter.
"She's devastated," DuPont said.
Corey Rice, of Lee, grew up in Ashley Falls, and also went to Mount Everett. Rice, 28, said that this doesn't surprise him, given that Blacks make up around 1 percent of the Sheffield population, as of the 2010 census.
He said Black History Month was never celebrated at the school in those years. And he said racism is a byproduct of the lack of diversity in this farm town where the N-word was thrown around casually, since all kids knew was "hip hop culture," and "stereotypes from TV."
"It's funny to them," Rice said, noting that they also made jokes about Nazis killing Jews. "They just don't get it."
Scott Bartzsch and his daughter, who graduated this year from Mount Everett, are involved in the Pride committee and helped with the sign.
"I woke up to an email," he said about the vandalism. "I'm married to a man, so this is pretty intense for all of us.
A lifelong resident of Sheffield, Bartzsch, 49, said he might have seen this coming.
"I'm surprised the sign has lasted as long as it has," he said. "I've seen the hidden racism and the blatant racism in our town. I've said to people, 'Yeah, we're a progressive town, but look what's behind that other door.'"
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.