'It has to stop': Protest over death in Minneapolis packs Pittsfield's Park Square
PITTSFIELD — Every time he walks out of the house. That's how often Christine Hamilton worries about what might happen to her son in a conflict with law enforcement.
"He's a big kid. He's the first person they would take down," she said.
On Saturday, Hamilton left her house on a rough street in Pittsfield's West Side to do something about it, joining more than 400 people for a Park Square protest spurred by the death of George Floyd, 46, allegedly by a Minneapolis police officer. Hamilton's son is 6-foot-6. Floyd was 6-7.
When it came Hamilton's turn to hold a microphone, she spoke of those fears. "It has to stop. We have to unite. We have to help each other."
Minutes later, she said privately, "This is so deep to me."
Though the event was organized on the fly by the Berkshires chapter of the NAACP, a diverse crowd surged onto the park space downtown at 3 p.m., encircling the area and spilling onto nearby sidewalks.
For more than 90 minutes, drivers of passing cars and trucks laid on their horns, eliciting hollers from protesters, one-third of whom appeared to be younger than 20.
The Pittsfield protest over the treatment of African Americans at the hands of police, including Floyd's strangulation Monday, joined dozens in major cities across the country, which included fires, vandalism and violent skirmishes with police that led to hundreds of arrests.
Though vocal, the Pittsfield protest remained peaceful. At 4:25 p.m., several dozen younger protesters blocked vehicle travel to the west of the park. Police cruisers arrived to protect the intersection, bringing chants of "Don't shoot" and "I can't breathe."
Police Chief Michael Wynn, a member of the NAACP chapter, said his officers would be present "to support and protect people's right to assemble."
The leading edge of the protest was the sidewalk around the park, which quickly filled with sign-carrying protesters of all ages. A group of two dozen teens wove through the sidewalk, circling the park and chanting.
An older couple held a sign that said, "We've Grown Old Waiting for America to Live Up to Its' Ideals."
In remarks lost on many, due to the noise, elected officials, NAACP members and ordinary people like Hamilton shared accounts of the pain they were feeling over recent killings, including the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery after being pursued by white residents Feb. 23 in Georgia.
African American speakers laid down a direct challenge to their white allies in the crowd.
Dennis Lee Powell, president of the chapter, told white listeners that they need to call out racism when they witness it.
"When you hear something, say something, damn it," Powell said. "It's what you do when you see it."
Powell then dropped to his knees on the park's grass, inspiring scores of listeners to do the same. "We've had enough and we're not going to take it anymore. Mean something. Say something. Take the risk."
Roberta McCulloch-Dews told the crowd of her two African American teenage sons, recalling her earlier grief over the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. She said she came not intending to speak, her heart heavy. She said that when young black people go out, "Their job is not to be perfect. Their job is to be."
"Again and again and again," she said of deaths like those of Floyd, Arbery and Martin. "This week I had a pit in my stomach. I was physically sick. I had so much rage in me."
Then, like Powell, she called on white supporters not just to go home from a protest. "Your silence equals complicity. Do not be silent. Use your voices."
"It is not our burden," McCulloch-Dews said of African Americans. "We don't go outside and [decide] we'll be black today."
Michael Hinkley, a local attorney, who is white, said people need to get over being afraid to talk about racism.
"We need to stop the self-consciousness and open up to the conversations that really matter. Because it's life and death," he said, his 12-year-old son, Michael, holding a fresh sign he had made that read, "America Is Choking on Racism."
Maureen Hinkley said she was struck by seeing signs calling for white people to confront racism.
"People are proud not to be a bigot," she said with sarcasm. "The bar is pretty low. That's never been enough."
Three of Pittsfield's top officials — its mayor, state representative and the county's chief law enforcement officer — expressed similar feelings, along with hope that the community finds strength by joining in protest.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said that, as a white woman, she might be well-intentioned but has much to learn.
"I want to do what's right, but I have such a long way to go," she said — and, her voice rising, demanding that people like her tackle the problem.
"Do the hard work. Read a book. Get uncomfortable. If you're not uncomfortable, you're not learning a damn thing."
She added, "It does fill me up and it does give me hope that so many of you are standing up against this injustice."
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, who came with her young son, was feeling a similar sentiment.
"It's actually comforting to be here together on this afternoon," she said.
In an interview as she walked toward the park, Mayor Linda Tyer said she wanted to be with the community. "I'm just still in utter heartbreak over what happened to George Floyd. It's important, in my heart, to stand here with the people in our city and in our county and express solidarity in our demand for justice."
"Look at what they've been able to pull off in a short time," she said of event organizers.
As the park filled, the noise level rose.
"It's good to see all the horns beeping," said Barry Clairmont, Tyer's husband. "People get it."
Jerome Edgerton Jr., a board member of the NAACP chapter, said the challenge now is to sustain public outrage over racism.
"We have a chance to come together. We have a chance to come together right here in Pittsfield," he told the crowd, over horns and chants. "Let this movement start. We've got to keep pushing. We've got to keep going."
In an interview later, Edgerton said he believes that lasting change, after centuries through which racism has been "ingrained in the American psyche," needs to be through politics.
"By just keeping our needs at the forefront," he said. "That's the only way we're going to turn back what we're seeing on the streets."
At a recent NAACP meeting, people reflected on the racial climate in the Berkshires, Edgerton said. Are people doing something better here?
"The answer to that is 'no,' " he said. "The same mentality exists here. We've just been lucky, honestly."
Chad Robertson, the chapter's secretary, said people can support the local NAACP by joining. Membership costs $30 a year.
"We have all sorts of committees that are crushing it in many ways," he said.
Leigh Davis, of Great Barrington, a biracial woman and member of her town's Select Board, held a sign that read, "I can't breathe means I can't breathe." She spoke in an interview of the video footage millions now have witnessed of Floyd's last minutes under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with third-degree murder.
"Once you see it, you can't unsee it. It's like you're living it time and again," she said. "For me, that's the hardest thing. It's visceral, and the pain is so deep."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
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.