|Williamstown Select Board Moves Toward Establishing Racial Justice Advisory Group|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
04:02AM / Friday, July 03, 2020
|Mohammed Memfis, lower right, addresses the Williamstown Select Board and town manager on Wednesday night.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Wednesday moved to create a committee that will, in part, collect stories about residents' experiences with racial injustice.
But first, the board got a taste of the kinds of stories that committee might hear.
"I'm a student," Mohammed Memfis told the board. "My second year at Williams, I was in Thompson Chapel, in the basement, having a meeting with one of my student groups, and a Williamstown Police Department officer came into the chapel, specifically into the group we were meeting in. There were a group of students there, including Bilal [Ansari] and I sitting on the couch.
"A police officer basically walked in … very aggressively looked at Bilal and I, stared at us and put his hand on his holster and stared at us. Another officer came in, tapped him on the shoulder, and they left. We were like, 'What is going on?' Never heard an answer back.
"Incidents like that happen all the time, not just with residents but with students on campus. That gets at the difference in experiences that we think is important for people to know about and consider when thinking about what public safety should look like."
Memfis was one of more than a dozen residents who addressed a special meeting of the board with very definite ideas about how public safety could look different in the town.
For the second time in a week, the board heard calls for the town to be more responsive to the needs of traditionally marginalized members of society.
Most of the residents on Wednesday's call said that response needs to include reprioritizing the town's budget and, specifically, reconsidering how much funding goes to the local police.
Memfis, an Atlanta resident who has debated for the Oxford Union and served on Williams' Black Student Union, said local activists are not recommending the town "defund" the police, although nearly 300 residents did sign a petition addressed to the Select Board that uses the term defund. Rather, Memfis said the residents are calling for the town to hold the line on the police budget and not go ahead with a $50,000 increase previously proposed for fiscal 2021.
"I think that you guys have the best interest at heart," he said. "I think that's why Williamstown is such a great place. … But I think that this is a reflection of what you all are going to decide to prioritize. A budget is a reflection of what the town prioritizes.
"If you look from a comparative standpoint at how you're spending money and the itemized resources that money is going to in comparison to some of the deep-rooted social needs, whether it be mental health, whether it be substance abuse, whether it be education, libraries -- question that appropriation of funds and think about how money has an opportunity cost and how it could be better used to match the needs of the community, to chart Williamstown on the path of not the town that it is, but … to be that town that we want it to be for everyone."
A couple of residents who spoke at Wednesday's meeting objected to the idea that anything has to change in town -- at least as far as the Police Department is concerned.
Travas McCarthy told the board that he thought the calls for racial justice at the local level were merely "fashionable" because of the national conversation that has gained momentum in recent weeks. McCarthy repeatedly said there was no evidence of racial incidents in the town that need to be addressed.
Albert Cummings agreed.
"I'm a little confused," he said. "I would bet I've been in Williamstown longer than everyone on board combined. I've never seen racism in this town, and I've never experienced a police officer with racism.
"Bilal [Ansari] spoke, and it would break my heart that anyone would live in this town and feel any kind of racism at all."
Jessica Dils of the grassroots organization Greylock Together and others pushed back on the assertion that racism is not a problem in the Northern Berkshire community.
"That committee [being formed by the Select Board] is much more aligned with the work that needs to get done right now in terms of guiding and educating and digging deep and also producing the kinds of stories that Albert [Cummings] is so shocked to hear about," Dils said. "He is living one experience, and there are a lot of people we know who are living an entirely different experience, who actually have to set up protocols when they drive in their car at night because they are afraid and they have been trailed by officers in their county. There are protocols put in place for their safety so their families know they will make it home at night.
"I'm not making these stories up. … These stories are lived experiences. And there are two different Williamstown. We all like to think that the Williamstown we grew up in is a wonderful, safe place, but unfortunately there are baked in, historical roots to all of this. And we all need to step back, try not to take this all so personally and understand that the roots of this are systemic, they are national, they are state level, they are local."
Cummings, in comments prior to Dils', asked Select Board Chair Jane Patton who Williamstown was named after.
After she answered, Ephraim Williams, Cummings pulled up a citation from Wikipedia noting that the 18th-century Williams owned slaves and asked whether the town would have to be renamed.
Though no one on the Select Board engaged on that point, Williams College's magazine in 2016 ran the transcript of an in-depth conversation among scholars about the school's -- and, by extension, town's -- complicated history around issues of race and indigenous peoples.
"How many [Thomas] Jefferson Boulevards around the country would have to be changed?" Williams history professor Leslie Brown asked rhetorically in the article
. "It's awful to have to walk by these names, but students need to learn to do that and say, 'You didn't want me here, and I'm here. All you are is a sign on a building.' We need to teach the history around those names and encourage students to understand that attitude in that time was defeated by the Civil War."
Annie Art told the Select Board that the personal histories of town residents who have experienced racism is "shocking and heart-breaking."
"I hope that the Police Department finds it shocking and heart-breaking and will be amenable to changing policies," Art said.
The Select Board started Wednesday's discussion by discussing a four-page memo on the topic, "Responding to Racial Justice Concerns," prepared by Vice Chair Andy Hogeland in consultation with Patton and Town Manager Jason Hoch.
The memo outlined four areas of action for the board to take, starting with a formal policy statement. Hogeland noted that the board could decide it met that goal with the Not in My County pledge it affirmed on June 22
or opt to craft its own statement.
Anne O'Connor said there was value in the board crafting a statement of its own, but she felt the panel wasn't ready to take that step.
The second and third sections of Hogeland's memo dealt with procedural steps the town can take around providing greater transparency about law enforcement and reviewing police procedure.
The fourth section of the memo was the one that drew the most attention from the "floor" of the virtual meeting on Wednesday. Under the heading "Community Conversations for Action," the memo contemplates the creation of an advisory committee of citizens similar to the Economic Development Committee and Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee previously created by the Select Board.
On Wednesday, the board agreed that unlike those two predecessors, the yet to be named racial justice advisory group would not "sunset" at the end of a yearlong study but would continue in some form. Also unlike those panels, the racial justice committee will be encouraged to offer suggestions to Town Hall in real time rather than waiting to produce a final report. Hoch said he would look at the town budget to find a way to finance the advisory committee so it could, if necessary, avail itself of outside help.
The Select Board considered but declined to reach decisions on how long people would be appointed to the committee or how large the committee would be. Board members did agree that it should be relatively large for a town body and as diverse as possible.
Anyone interested in serving on the committee or being added to a list of people who might address it was encouraged to email email@example.com
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