Our Opinion: Protest rallies offer reasons for hope

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The May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis continues to resonate across the nation, as reflected in the peaceful protests in Berkshire County over the last few days. Demands for reform are heard locally and nationally, but the path forward to an end to this abuse isn't clear. Nor is it clear how America will cleanse itself of racism.

At least 1,000 packed the lawn at Town Hall and adjoining streets Saturday in Great Barrington, the birthplace of civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, in one of the largest protests ever seen in the Berkshires. Between 500 and 700 protesters gathered at Field Park in Williamstown the night before. Both protests were peaceful.

The anger and frustration at police brutality directed at African Americans has plainly reached a boiling point in a fed-up nation. Footage over the weekend of a couple more incidents of police roughing up black people are further evidence that this is not a problem of a few "rogue cops." Racism is seemingly baked into too many police forces across the nation.

Calls to "defund the police" are an overreaction and counterproductive. There is no logic to making life easier for criminals, such as the looters and rioters who marred many peaceful protests. Many, but not all, police departments need reform. None need to be crippled financially.

At Saturday's rally sponsored by the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP, chapter President Dennis Powell called on Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League to stop funding training for U.S. police officers in aggressive techniques. These programs are controversial because of the brutal manner in which Israeli law enforcement officers have treated Palestinian protesters.

The training programs should certainly be studied for cause and effect issues, but America's problems with racism on police forces are likely homegrown. The police officer charged with murdering Mr. Floyd had a long track record of violent incidents yet remained on the force. This sends the message that racism is acceptable and allows it to take root. Police unions that fight the dismissal or punishment of violent, racist cops push those roots down even further.

Certainly the legislative banning of chokeholds like the one applied to Mr. Floyd as he struggled for breath is also called for. The officer had his knee on Mr. Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, an act Mr. Powell compared to a lynching and was described by Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh, whose department does not allow such holds, as "disgusting, terrible." Attacking the larger problem that leads to police brutality will require better screening of candidates and education campaigns in working with minority residents. It will not be a quick and easy process.

The size and enduring nature of the peaceful protests joined by people of a variety of ethnic groups offers encouragement that change will finally come, as does the large number of young people participating here and across the nation. The Great Barrington rally was organized by Berkshire resident Calista Nelson, who is 17, and her 18-year-old friend Langston Stahler of New York City. Long-term police reform won't succeed, however, until America comes to grips with a heritage of racism extending from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation to less explicit forms of bigotry. Maybe the young people will lead the way in curing America's original sin.

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