In Berkshires, Trump's tweets met with furor, backing — and a measure of concern

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Berkshire County residents and officials are not surprised by racist rhetoric that President Donald Trump used this week in suggesting that four Democratic congresswomen go back to their "broken and crime infested" countries.

Many, though, see such language as a license for people with similar beliefs to share them proudly.

"With this one, I was taken back, probably more than in the past," Pittsfield City Councilor Earl Persip said Tuesday. "I see, nationally, a lot of people kind of coming out [as racists.] Before, people would hide their racism."

Trump on Sunday tweeted that the representatives should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."

His messages elicited a wave of criticism and accusations of racism from Democrats. The House voted Tuesday to rebuke the president for his statements.

On Monday, the president had reiterated his comments aimed at the women, tweeting that if the lawmakers "are not happy here," they "can leave."

The president's comments were directed at U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All four are American citizens, and three of the four were born in the U.S.

In Berkshire County, many residents interviewed Tuesday reacted to Trump's tweets with distaste, calling his words "reprehensible" and "definitely racist," as Williamstown resident Doug Pickard put it.

While Twitter is the president's preferred political cudgel, many interviewed across the county believe he has crossed a line with the remarks directed toward the congresswomen.

Persip, who is biracial, said that growing up in Berkshire County wasn't easy, and he never felt that he belonged. Still, when he was a child, he was able to respect the office of the president. He doesn't think many young people of color are able to do that today.

"I think this is a time when kids are seeing a lot of things you wouldn't have seen before. This president is a whole new ballgame. I think he's a racist. He brings nothing but negativity to the country," Persip said. "I think young people probably look at the president differently that I did when I was growing up. It's too bad, because that office should be respected, and it was at one point."

In North Adams, Ashley Veltman called Trump a "closed-minded individual."

"He doesn't have respect for women, respect for minorities, respect for the fact that our nation is a [melting] pot," she said, adding that she believes differences make the nation strong. "I don't think he really sees that."

For many residents interviewed, the president's negative remarks do not exemplify what should constitute decent behavior in politics.

"I have been a person who has always watched the news and politics and TV, and I see him and I'm talking to the screen. I have never done that before," said Margo Melito, of North Adams. "But I'm just aggravated. I have a lot of grandchildren, and I'm worried about their future with this type of politics."

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said it's important for people to continue to call out racism when they see it.

"He continues to hit new lows. I don't think it's a surprise," she said of the president. "What this is doing, it's giving people permission to use words like `go back where you came from.' That's some of the most racist things you can say."

"Those who feel vulnerable from the beginning are then made even more uncomfortable," she added. "Those who feel like they want to copy the president, it just gives them more license."

Early rebuke

Dennis Powell, president of NAACP Berkshires, said he has been told to "go back where you came from" at least once a year for most of his life.

To this day, at 74, Powell still finds that white women cross the street when he's walking behind them, or women will clutch their purses when they share an elevator.

While his generation might be numb to casual racism, many young people of color, who didn't live through the 1960s, are not, Powell said.

"I don't let anything bother me, but I'm an elderly man. I've been through it. For the younger people, it's hard," he said. "They are inquisitive. They ask questions, They're more humane."

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Racism has been alive since the beginning of time and he doesn't see it going away.

"He's only getting his ideas from history," he said of Trump's comments. "To tweet these remarks, `go back to where your came from,' it was like telling black people to go back to Africa. You should have left us in Africa."

"There's so many in our community who have that mindset," Powell said. "It's been licensed. It's become less covert. He's licensed racists with his rhetoric and he's licensed violence toward humanity."

'Nothing new'

On Tuesday afternoon, people ate lunch and worked on laptops at Six Depot Roastery and Cafe in West Stockbridge. After finishing his meal, Jimmy Chervenav, who splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires, said that while Trump's comments are offensive, he doesn't expect them to have a palpable effect on young people of color in the United States, as it has been an unfortunate fact of life for them before Trump took office.

"They're used to racism," he said of children of color. "There's nothing new about that. We're a racist country."

Trump's tweet is reflective of language that Chervenav, 76, said he heard as a child.

"I did grow up in an immigrant neighborhood," he said. "When things got rough, people would holler at each other `go back to where you came from' and they'd do it in broken English."

In reaction to the tweets, the four representatives held a news conference, during which Pressley urged viewers not to let the president's language distract them.

Farley-Bouvier said Berkshire County residents should follow her lead.

"I think the policy at the southern border is a huge issue we should be focused on," she said.

"We should be focusing on health, the health of the planet, the health of the species," Chervenav said.

Powell, though, disputes the idea that Trump made the comments as a political calculation or distraction.

"They say he's just doing it as a diversion," Powell said. "He's not doing it as a diversion. This is who he is."

Other residents interviewed Tuesday disagree. They said they view Trump's remarks as evidence of politics becoming increasingly disrespectful.

"There is no longer any lines to cross," Steven J. Miller of the Williamstown Republican Committee said. "The Obama administration talks about bringing guns to a [knife] fight. ... I would love both sides to tone things down. You can't focus on the most recent issue."

Adams resident Arthur Litchfield thought the president's latest comments have received unfair criticism.

"He's the last one to make the comment and then everyone jumps [down] his throat," he said, then questioned the actions of the members of Congress. "Why aren't they saying something to these women who are making these stupid comments? Look at the bigger picture."

Persip, the Pittsfield city councilor, said that if he was speaking to a young person of color concerned by language used by the president, he would explain that there will always be people who disrespect others based on the color of their skin, their religion or their gender.

Instead of returning the hate, they should rise above, he said.

"They need to treat everyone with respect. They need to be the best person they can be," Persip said of young people growing up today. "At times, I've still felt people judge me because I'm biracial. I continue to do whatever I can do to make Pittsfield a better place."

"I always tell young people that I like to believe, wherever I find myself, I belong," Powell said.

"The one thing I can tell you about young people is, they're not their parents," he added. "They have voice."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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