'Silence is simply not an option': Berkshire County leaders respond to rising racism and national tension


GREAT BARRINGTON - Amid a national crisis sparked by emboldened white supremacy and spiking tensions, local officials, lawmakers and religious leaders say they, too, are ratcheting up resistance to bigotry and hate in all its guises.

"This certainly strengthens my resolve," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer. "The antidote to what we're seeing nationally ... is right where we live, right where our feet are."

Tyer said the best way to fight divisiveness is to be a place that "nurtures and celebrates diversity however it shows up in our city."

After last Saturday's neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent, leaving one dead and injuring dozens, a double-talking response from President Donald Trump turned incendiary, causing outrage and fear on one side, and validation of fascist groups on the other.

"It is unconscionable that an American president would stand up and defend neo-Nazis and white supremacists," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who added that Trump appears to be challenging a "common set of values" and is "undoing the social fabric in the country."

Adding to the national and local tension and concern is a rally planned for Saturday in Boston, where Monday - for the second time this summer - the New England Holocaust Memorial was vandalized.

The group Boston Free Speech is reportedly organizing the rally, which according to The Boston Globe, will see attendance from some of the same activists who went to Charlottesville, though the group's president said the group is not affiliated with white supremacists.

But the rally and word of counter protests has city officials and the nation watching worriedly for a repeat of Charlottesville.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, issued a statement condemning Trump's response to last weekend's violence, and said the "bigotry" displayed in Charlottesville was "deeply disturbing and contrary to our core principles."

Neal called for a hard line. "We cannot equivocate when it comes to groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis," he said. "And the deadly violence we witnessed must be condemned in the strongest possible terms."

Local officials, too, are finding their work now being shaped by what they say is a dangerous national political and social climate fueled by Trump's wink-and-nod-style blessings of extremism.

"I rely on the police department to [watch for] upticks on social media ... where they might notice an emerging presence of this sort of activity," Tyer said, adding that this was preventative, that she was not aware of any such groups locally.

Pittsfield Police officials could not be reached for details Wednesday, but Tyer said she will also rely on the police to review any permits pulled for demonstrations, and to apply the right safety measures, depending.

When asked what would happen if a neo-Nazi group wanted a permit to stage a rally, Myla Franklin, the city's licensing board clerk, told The Eagle that they would have to go through all the same permitting as anyone else.

Tyer is notified of all permits, Franklin added.

And Tyer said while she hasn't seen any permits for counter-protests of the Boston rally hit her desk, she would attend such a rally in Pittsfield should one be held.

Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, said he too, will work locally to counter any movement toward a more robust white supremacy movement. "It's not just in Charlottesville," he said. "It's all over."

Powell said he's still navigating the landscape of how this will affect his work, and what to do about it.

"How do you change years of hate into moments of love?" he asked.

But he's sure of one thing, he said.

"[Charlottesville] will change the way we all perform our activism because we really have to be very alert, very conscious of our surroundings. It's a time we never thought we would be seeing with the progress that's been made."

And local clergy, while also watching for signs of trouble, say they, too, will keep awake and busy at weaving their local communities tighter, no matter the religion or race.

"From a Christian perspective, the idea that one part of God's created humanity is superior to another is just untrue and sinful," said Erik Karas, pastor of Christ Trinity Church in Sheffield.

When asked what to do about Christians who are also white supremacists, Karas said this was "hard."

"The compassionate voices aren't as sensational as those groups," he said. "It's not as fantastic, so it doesn't get the airtime."

Karas, who has been pastor here only two weeks, said he wrote a long letter about his position to his congregation, "so they get to know who I am and where I stand."

"The best way to fight this stuff is to get to know one another, pray, laugh, cry together. That builds an immunity [to racial and religious intolerance] in an area."

Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield said he hasn't seen any anti-Semitic episodes locally - "not yet" - but is resolved to also inoculate against fear and despair from the upswing in anti-Semitic and racist messages before and after Charlottesville.

"If there's anything a religious community stands for, it is to resist despair," he said. "We are divine beings and we have holy sparks in us and we resist the message of divisiveness that we are seeing."

Breindel, who is also president of the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations interfaith group, read from Leviticus in Hebrew, then translated into English: "Don't stand idly by the blood of your neighbor."

This is the key, he said. And he still finds himself praying for people's safety - now for those in Boston this weekend, he said.

Barbara Kipnis Cohen, spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Shalom in Great Barrington says she is praying, too.

"When I drive up to the synagogue, every single time I pray that I don't encounter any kinds of signs," she said, noting that she hasn't seen an anti-Semitic act in her 12 years here.

Cohen said the "distortion of language" among neo-Nazi groups and Trump is "historically reminiscent" for Jews.

"It is the greatest urgency for there not to be sleepiness in the Jewish community and the broader community," she added. "Silence is simply not an option."

"But language, being as powerful as we can see that it is, we need to be thoughtful about how we communicate our absolute disgust at the moral equivalencies that are being created in our national government, especially from our president."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871


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