|Williamstown Select Board Pressed for Action on Racial Justice|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
01:16AM / Wednesday, June 24, 2020
|Bilal Ansari, bottom right, speaks at Monday's Select Board meeting about how unsafe he feels in the community because of racism.|
Twink Williams Burns is one of 15 people who testified on the need for action within the community.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Bilal Ansari is an educated man with a long history in a town that claims to value both education and history.
But, as he explained Monday night, he cannot feel at home in the place where he makes his home.
"My father used to come visit his grandfather in Williamstown as a young Black child until he was 13 years old," Ansari said. "One day walking through the park with his uncle, who was about the same age as him, he was called a nigger. Growing up in Harlem, he got into an altercation with the person who called him that name.
"My father was never allowed to come back to Williamstown to visit his grandfather. My great-grandfather had to go to New York to see him because the family was no longer welcome. If my grandfather wanted to keep his job here in town, my father was no longer welcomed."
Ansari now is the assistant vice president for campus engagement at Williams College. He moved to Williamstown, he said, with hopes of reconciling that pain. Those hopes are yet to be realized.
On Monday, he was one of 15 residents who testified virtually before the Select Board about the need for action on social justice in the town of 7,700.
He was one of several who called on the board to take what they considered the long overdue step of signing the "Not In Our County" pledge drafted by the South County-based non-profit Multicultural BRIDGE.
"Hearing how … in the year , when people came and asked you to commit and only three people as individuals signed but the town would not sign onto it, my heart is hurting," Ansari said. "I truly do not feel safe walking down the streets, especially when every police officer has a baton, has a mace can and has a 9 mm and has two shotguns in the car, for a town where over 90 percent of the problems are traffic-related.
"I don't feel safe. … Structurally, things have to change.
"If I know the leaders of the town don't have a commitment to my safety, to my well-being, to my four children, who I refuse to bring here to live with me. I keep them safe in an urban context because their daddy doesn't feel safe.
"It's time for action."
After more than an hour of public testimony that was frequently passionate, occasionally angry and at times difficult to hear, the Select Board took the measure it declined to take two years ago and voted unanimously to sign the Not In Our County pledge
, which, among other things, obliges the town to "work to acknowledge and heal all forms of hate, bigotry and bullying."
Jane Patton, who now chairs the board, said she remembers being disappointed that it did not take a stronger stand on the pledge when first given the opportunity.
Jeffrey Thomas said his recollection is that the board was asked to sign the pledge at a time when it was being approached by various groups with initiatives that were difficult to vet and the board's reluctance in 2018 was part of a general feeling that the panel needed to stick to matters directly in its purview.
"That sounds maybe hard to understand," Thomas admitted. "But that was then and this is now, and it's different for me now. I'm happy to support [the pledge]. It would be an important gesture and, to some people, a corrective gesture. Hopefully, it's one of many things we can do to address this important issue."
Twink Williams Burns was one of the ones testifying in Monday's virtual meeting to remind the Select Board how important and how local that issue truly is.
Burns, who wrote a well-circulated Facebook post about her family's experience with racism, said she did not plan to speak at the meeting and that she was "deeply disappointed" that it took a social media post to bring the issue to the forefront in the town.
"How do I tell my children that this place that calls itself loving and progressive and welcoming is actually going to be a place where they have to get used to the fact that one of their peers is going to call them the 'n word' because their parents aren't bold enough to talk to them about it?" Burns said. "We're doing all of our children a disservice. Not just my children. We're doing your children a disservice when we don't talk about this. And I'm not just talking about in our school, I'm talking about in our town. I'm talking about in our homes. I'm talking about whenever we're out and about.
"If we don't fill that space with important information about the way that we've all been conditioned to see other people in this country that's built on white supremacy, we're basically co-signing that it's OK for our white youth to slip in the 'n word' when it's fun with their friends. Because they've never been challenged to think about it in a more critical way."
The Select Board agreed to a special meeting on July 1 to consider a framework for developing an action plan that was sketched out by Andy Hogeland on Monday night. Hogeland's proposal, which grew out of discussions between himself, Patton and Town Manager Jason Hoch, included looking at police policies and practices in the town and town-sponsored community conversations, perhaps working with schools or religious organizations.
At one point, Hoch said Monday's public comment was an example of the kind of community forum he envisions.
And there were several actionable steps that came up during Monday's meeting.
Several residents suggested that the town divert some of the police budget to create a mental health officer who more properly could serve many of the residents at the center of police calls. A few talked about the town's shortage of affordable housing and need to create opportunities to build a more diverse community. A few pushed for the Select Board to take a deeper look at the police budget and ask whether the town is dedicating too much money to law enforcement.
One of the 15 residents who testified on Monday, Mount Greylock Regional School 10th-grader Tashi Rai, broached the idea of "defunding" the local police force, echoing a national movement to reallocate some funds from law enforcement toward social programs.
"The case has never been clearer to revisit our police budget and focus on putting our money where our words are and defunding our system of oppression in this community," Rai said. "I would really encourage you all to consider the practical implications of the Black Lives Matter movement, take steps to reallocate in our community and push for a police budget review before next month."
Rai also questioned why it took years to build a new Mount Greylock that serves more than 500 seventh- through 12th-graders but, "building of a police station happened almost overnight."
Much like the old Mount Greylock, issues with the former police headquarters at Town Hall were well documented
over a period of years. The former police station in a converted fraternity house was unsafe for officers and detainees, lacked handicapped accessibility and lacked sufficient space for officer training — among other deficiencies. The plan to build a new station on Simonds Road was approved by two town meetings: a special town meeting in fall 2017 to acquire the property and the following year's annual town meeting to approve the bond for the renovation and expansion of the former home of Turner House.
While most of Monday's discussion focused on the problems that people of color face in Williamstown and calls for real change, some of the conversation touched on proposals for broad public statements by the town — specifically a request by residents that the town paint Black Lives Matter or similar messages on Spring Street.
Hoch told the board that such painting could run afoul of regulations and open the town to liability if an accident occurred on a road that did not meet safety standards.
"Sadly, many of the rules about streets and pavements are regulated for, ostensibly, the safety of the users," he said. "The manual on uniform traffic control devices
prohibits [non-traffic related markings], which is a challenge."
Patton came to Monday's meeting with a suggestion that she thought would meet the objective of a strong public statement: hanging Black Lives Matter banners from the lamp poles downtown instead of the usual seasonal banners used to promote the town's cultural institutions.
But by the end of the discussion, no one was making any moves to follow through on that idea — not after several residents questioned why the town was talking about banners when substantive change is needed.
"I'm actively against the idea of any kind of public display like that in Williamstown," Gail Newman said. "Having banners or having something written on Spring Street could have a negative effect precisely insofar as it is all too easy to have it interpreted as self-congratulatory or performative.
"I think what Mr. Hogeland was talking about — having to earn this by action — is really important."
Burns minced no words. Williamstown has not earned anything, she said.
"I don't understand why we're spending so much time talking about banners versus paint versus whatever," she Burns said. "I love that someone said earlier that we need to have some sort of physical sign that Black people who visit our town should feel welcome here. I would love for that to be true.
"But right now, putting up the sign would be a lie. … I don't think Black people should feel comfortable in our town. But I want us to."
(Editor's note: We felt Ansari's quote should run in full — as it does on WilliNet — in its context as describing a profound experience that affected his family.)