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Williamstown's DIRE Committee Hears from Grassroots Groups
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:02AM / Wednesday, August 26, 2020
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One of the messages carried to the Williamstown Police Department on Friday by protesters in a demonstration organized by the town's Racial Justice Police Reform Group.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two grassroots groups that predate the town's Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee caught the panel up on their activities at Monday's meeting.
 
The Williamstown Youth Abolition Coalition, which formed in July, and the Racial Justice Police Reform Group, which started in June, each gave a presentation to the DIRE Committee at its weekly virtual meeting.
 
The WYAC and the RJPR were among the voices calling for change that led to the Select Board establishing the DIRE Committee in July.
 
But their activities have extended beyond forcing town government to form a committee to start to reckon with issues of inequity in the community.
 
Margot Besnard represented the RJPR Group, which was formed after a well-attended June 5 Black Lives Matter protest at Field Park that was part of a nationwide resurgence of the movement following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
 
Besnard outlined four priorities for the group, starting with improving mental health supports in the town.
 
"There are five social workers in RJPR who meet separately from the big group," Besnard said. "They've developed an initial plan for how Williamstown can improve mental health services. That group has already met with the town manager and has a meeting planned with him again.
 
"They are going to continue advising Jason Hoch on how to best develop those mental health services."
 
The group's second priority is police oversight, Besnard said. That was the focus of the most recent Friday evening protest, which saw demonstrators march from Field Park to the police station on Simonds Road.
 
In the wake of the recent allegations raised in a federal lawsuit against the town, the chief of police and the town manager, RJPR has called on the Select Board to place Hoch and Chief Kyle Johnson on administrative leave, Besnard said.
 
"Long term, our group is focused on this question: How can we implement policy change that prevents accountability issues from happening in the first place," Besnard said. "There are several ideas for that. One is a civilian oversight board, which I know Lanesborough and Pittsfield both have. Research is happening on that topic. There's more to come."
 
RJPR's third and fourth priorities include looking at the town budget and how Williamstown prioritizes spending and gathering information about the roots of racism in the community, Besnard said.
 
One of the members of the community asked Besnard about the fact that the RJPR group did not bring a motion to the floor of last week's town meeting to reallocate a portion of the budget away from the Police Department even though a "defund police" petition had been circulating in the community.
 
Besnard said the group made a strategic decision to focus on Articles 36 and 37 on the town meeting warrant and that a defund measure might not have enough support among town meeting members and that more education needed to be done. She also said the objective was achieved without a town meeting action.
 
"When I looked at the police budget and other people in the RJPR looked at the police budget and the planned $52,000 increase that was proposed [in the original fiscal 2021 budget], we decided take action and come up with ways to try and at least make sure police funding stayed level," Besnard said. "It would be a concrete step in this movement for Black lives to say, 'We are looking more closely at how we're spending more money in Williamstown.'
 
"Was it really going to be necessary for the Police Department to get a new vehicle. Would it be necessary to have two officers on duty and one supervising 24/7, 365, which is our current model of policing in Williamstown. … When we started asking those questions, and I met with Jason [Hoch], he helped me understand the answers. We had started working on a citizens' petition for level police funding, but we did not end up submitting it because we found out that actually the budget was not going to increase that much once it was revised for COVID-19 considerations."
 
Priya D'Souza represented the WYAC, a student-led group focused on issues ranging from police spending to broader social justice issues, like affordable housing.
 
"The cost of living and the lack of social services in this town make it completely economically segregated from the rest of the Berkshires," D'Souza said, reading from the coalition's mission statement. "The WYAC takes issue with this and seeks to create a town that is livable for all.
 
"To that end, we advocate strongly that any money displaced from the police budget should go to affordable housing services, mental health services or other social services."
 
D'Souza, whose mother happens to serve on the DIRE Committee, told the panel in answer to a question that the WYAC is not limiting its efforts to advocacy to local youth.
 
"That's why we've been working so closely with RJPR," Priya D'Souza said. "Through speaking with them, speaking at their meetings, speaking at the events they hold, we are trying to get our message across to a wider scope of people, a wider age range.
 
"I do think once school starts up again and once it's possible, given these unprecedented times, we do plan on continuing our work in an academic environment. I am the head of Mount Greylock's Multicultural Student Union, a group of multi-racial students covering issues of diversity or lack thereof at Mount Greylock Regional School."
 
In other business on Monday, the DIRE Committee agreed to authorize Chair Mohammed Memfis to send a letter to the Select Board reminding that body that the DIRE Committee expects an answer to the resolution it sent the Select Board on Aug. 17.
 
The Select Board, which has met twice in executive session since the town was hit with a lawsuit by Sgt. Scott McGowan, has another executive session scheduled for Wednesday morning to discuss strategy with respect to that suit. The Select Board's next scheduled regular open meeting is Monday, Aug. 31, at 7 p.m.
 
Committee member Andrew Art Monday informed his colleagues that the town has responded to the DIRE Committee's request for documentation on all current policies of the Williamstown PD. Those policies are available at the DIRE Committee's website.
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