The weekly social justice rally walked from Field Park to the police station on Friday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — About five dozen protesters carried a lot of signs on the 1-1/2 mile march from Field Park to the Police Department.
And there is one sign that they hope will leave a lasting mark.
At the end of a half-hour demonstration in the police station parking lot, Bilal Ansari, a member of the town's Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee called on someone from the department to have the courage to put a Black Lives Matter sign in the ground alongside the large sign that announces the building's presence on Simonds Road (Route 7).
Lt. Mike Ziemba, who stood silently as multiple speakers harshly criticized the department and its leadership, took the lawn sign from Ansari and planted it in the ground.
"It was just a relief to see that there's some leadership here that cares enough to make a statement that Black Lives Matter here," Ansari said afterward. "For Lt. Ziemba to step up — and, first of all, just to be here — I feel like there is leadership here, but it's just not recognized.
"I'm just so grateful for him. But the people who are in charge need to be held accountable. I think that's what the resounding message was: People just need to be held accountable."
Ziemba, meanwhile, told the protesters gathered for the weekly social justice rally that they have a role to play in achieving the peace and safety that they seek.
"We see you," Ziemba told the crowd after placing the sign. "We're committed to fixing this and growing, but we need everyone here to help us do it."
It was a harmonious end to what at times was a very acrimonious summer evening.
The signs carried messages like, "Dismantle and Restructure WPD," and "Oversight Now." The chants included, "Chief Johnson has to go" and "The whole town is watching."
The speakers were just as clear.
Margot Besnard, one of the driving forces behind the weekly Friday demonstrations that began earlier this summer, was the first to take the bullhorn on Friday.
She told the crowd the march to the police station was organized because the community recognizes that "there is something really wrong about the way we're doing law enforcement oversight in this town, in this state and in this country."
Besnard then refuted the notion that protesters in Williamstown are "making up issues" in the North County town. She said there are verifiable portions of the federal lawsuit filed against the town, Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch that show Williamstown's issues are very real.
"Let's not talk about the allegations, let's talk about the facts we learned last week," Besnard said. "This is what I learned. I learned that in 2011, a Williamstown police officer, off duty, went to a female resident's home … and when he asked her to have sex with her and she said no, he didn't understand the concept of consent.
"And we know this is a fact, not an allegation, because he admitted to it. He admitted to committing indecent assault and battery."
The incident Besnard cited is detailed on pages 7 and 8 of the complaint filed against the town by Sgt. Scott McGowan. The complaint states that Johnson "disciplined Officer B but allowed him to remain on the force, where he works to this day."
"Imagine what you would do if you were the police chief of Williamstown, and you found out one of your officers committed sexual assault," Besnard said. "What would you do? This police chief, Chief Johnson, did not fire him. He docked a couple of vacation days.
"Let that sink in a minute. He docked a couple of vacation days."
Besnard said the department needs to serve and protect all residents of Williamstown.
"We want a police chief who holds his officers accountable for following the law," she said. "It's a crazy thing to ask for. We the people are paying their salaries, their benefits and for their toys right over there. It's not a crazy thing to ask for.
"I don't want a police chief who can't say Black Lives Matter and mean it. We want a police chief who can say Black Lives Matter and who can police a town as if Black lives matter because they do."
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