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Diversity Committee Members Speak of Pain From Threatening Email
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:33AM / Wednesday, June 08, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Members of the town's diversity committee Monday talked about the emotional toll from an email that threatened violence against the committee and others speaking out about making the town more welcoming to diverse populations.
 
"When I read it, I had such a rush of blood going up to my ears that I didn't hear anything for a few minutes," Andi Bryant told her colleagues during a virtual meeting. "It was that startling and that frightening for me.
 
"I spent a couple of days in fear, and I'm not too ashamed to admit that. It scared the hell out of me. It made me question what I'm doing."
 
Intimidation appeared to be the goal of the email, which sparked a police investigation and a strongly worded condemnation in a joint statement from the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee and the Select Board.
 
Those two bodies held two joint meetings since the May 23 email -- first in executive session to discuss the situation and again last week to approve the joint statement drafted by the chairs.
 
Monday marked the first regular meeting of the DIRE Committee since the incident but not the first time that the committee has dealt with efforts to silence the work it began in the summer of 2020.
 
"It's not the first time members of DIRE have been threatened for speaking out, for expressing their views publicly," founding member Andrew Art said. "And I think, in terms of process, the steps we went through publicly to hear what the legal assessment was about the letter was important.
 
"I also think it's important to hear how things like this impact individuals on the committee because, although we're subject to the Open Meeting Law and we take that responsibility seriously, individuals bring their own experience to the moment of being affected or not affected by the email being received."
 
Randall Fippinger elaborated on how the same hate-filled message could land differently with different recipients.
 
"I just want to reiterate the ripple effects of the email we received," Fippinger said later in the meeting. "It went straight through my house and beyond. As a privileged white male, I can respond to it one way, but other people in my house are not as privileged as me and had a much harder response to it."
 
Adding to the element of fear was the fact that the email was sent from a fake email account, which indicated a level of premeditation.
 
"This person worked to disguise their name," Fippinger said. "I'm surprised that, in the eyes of the law, that didn't elevate the level of seriousness. To intentionally mask yourself seems to add an added level of serious intent.
 
"It wasn't impulsive."
 
The police investigation identified the email's writer but did not result in criminal charges. The local probe involved consultation with the FBI and the State Police.
 
During Monday's public participation, resident Jessica Dils asked what other resources could be brought to bear or might still be brought into the conversation, specifically suggesting the American Civil Liberties Union.
 
Noah Smalls, who co-chairs the DIRE Committee with Bryant, said it was an idea worth pursuing.
 
Smalls emphasized that he thought the WPD investigation was thorough but wondered aloud if there were other entities who should be involved in this or future incidents.
 
"To Jessica's point, it does bring up a great opportunity for continued dialogue on how to richen the landscape of support systems and networks to deal with incidents like this," Smalls said. "It is a bit short-armed to have -- especially for a diversity committee -- to have only internal to the town agencies available to jump into action on these things.
 
"I don't want to use this to take anything away from the actions of our police department, because that's not relevant here. They've been very supportive and did everything they could to rush right in on our behalf. … There are some things that just can't be filled by a local police department, and we need to have those things available to us when we're thinking through these issues."
 
Bryant expressed concerns about the public release of details of the email, which iBerkshires.com obtained under the commonwealth's public records law. The DIRE Committee and Select Board considered releasing the email when they issued a joint statement on the threats but chose to instead characterize the email's language as "including violent imagery" and an act of "intimidation."
 
Bryant said going into more detail invites copycats. And she worried that exposing the language used when the email itself was not a chargeable offense provides a guideline for copycats for just how far they can go without running afoul of the law.
 
"As a committee, we discussed the public release of the email, and we didn't decide to do that," Art said. "[Bryant] wasn't the only person who had concerns about the release."
 
In other business on Monday, Art suggested that the town should find a way to engage the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in a conversation about the naming of the new multi-modal trail being built from Syndicate Road to the Spruces Park.
 
Art noted that Massachusetts Department of Transportation documents refer to the trail as the "Mohawk Pedestrian/Bicycle Trail," a name that mimics the portion of Route 2 from Greenfield to Williamstown known as the Mohawk Trail.
 
He pointed out that the vehicular Mohawk Trail was a magnet for appropriated imagery of indigenous people and kitschy "Indian" trinkets that had no legitimate connection to or benefit for the native people who were displaced from their homeland. And he said the town and MassDOT should not repeat the mistakes of the past when it has the opportunity to have a dialogue with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, which has an extension office on Spring Street.
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