Big Racism in a Small “Progressive” Town

I live in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a town of about 8,000 people in the very northwest corner of the state. The north border of town touches Vermont and the west border of town touches upstate New York. On the surface, we’re a progressive place. It is a college town occupied overwhelmingly by Democratic voters. There are a fair number of Black Lives Matters signs up. People are nice. Usually. However, Williamstown was founded by Ephraim Williams who was, among other things, a slaveowner. From that founding onwards, this town has not been diverse and it has not been inclusive. If you want a glimpse of the history, here is one compelling personal account.

The history of racism, exclusion, and other forms of oppression in Williamstown, like most such histories, is a long one. Here, I am going to limit myself to a few recent events. In the future, I plan to write about events not included below, like the time White people in my condo development tried to make me take down my Black Lives Matter sign, or when my husband was run out the local school board race, and plenty of other incidents affecting others in my circle.

Let me turn now to some of the worst of it. Recently, there has been bullying and racism in the police department, including a picture of Hitler that was put up, repeated uses of the N-word, not to mention sexual harassment, assault, and more… much of it allegedly perpetrated by the chief.

Also… a Williamstown police officer was put on the misconduct watchlist by the county DA.

The various allegedly offending police officers are all still on payroll of the town, with no discipline given. The town manager who has the power to address the issue — but didn’t, and still hasn’t — is still employed by the town. The select board (our version of a town council) has done nothing to remove the town manager or the various police officers. Here’s how the town has responded. Meanwhile, the select board is actually speaking out to tell us to support the police.

And wouldn’t ya know, a bunch of white people in town are actually doing it. Nevermind the less empowered citizens who are actually being harmed.

Here’s another fun tidbit.

Recently, a member of our community who is minoritized along gender and race/ethnicity axes received a death threat. The select board had a meeting and kicked it off with a huge amount of time spent discussing plans for a bike path. At his wit’s end, my badass husband waited patiently until the meeting’s opportunity for public Q&A on the bike paths to point out the absurdity of putting time and energy into bike paths while black and brown people in our community are being threatened, harassed, and harmed. Here’s the video evidence!To bring the conversation back to stuff that matters, he asked “What is the town’s stance on pictures of Hitler along the bike path.” MIC DROP. The select board ignored him and started to move on. Then, one member interrupted to say “Wait, we’re not going to respond to that RIDICULOUSNESS?” Select board, it is indeed ridiculous that you put us in the position of having to ask questions like this. If you actually took action to address racism in the community, we wouldn’t need to.

And then later in the meeting, we have this nonesense: one committee member laying down some yoga in order to… stop black people from getting death threats? Let’s be clear. Despite everything the town has said about “being committed to dialogue” and “taking things seriously” absolutely nothing has happened to address harms against minoritized people here. Right after the yoga, she goes on to explain just exactly why she is in favor of doing nothing.

A few nights ago, on Halloween, the Williamstown Police Department handed out bags with candy, pencils, and police patches. My family and I did not receive these, but some friends sent pictures of what they had received. Some of the patches looked like this:

To some, and especially to people in my community who live in fear of the racist structures in town, this looks disturbingly like a Blue Lives Matter patch. The town has since come out to explain that this was not the intention at all, and that it is an innocent mistake. I accept that explanation. Still, before the town spoke up, I posted an innocent question to our community Facebook group to do some fact-checking:

I had even noted that a Google Image search on exactly the sort of flag patch handed out turned this up:

Nonetheless, despite me having merely asked a question, which had behind it at least some empirical evidence to suggest that the rumor MIGHT be true, and without me having passed political judgment on it, here’s the sort of response I got among the 115 comments:

That’s right. For daring to ask a question, I should leave town. Here’s another one:

To their credit, the person in this second exchange did offer me an apology, which I gratefully accepted. But this is what it’s like where I live. 130 comments, mind you.

Black and brown people, queer people, transgender people, disabled people, and other minoritized individuals around me are being harmed every day and I am struggling to figure out how to make it stop. But here’s one idea: I think the locals here would react very differently if we had attention from outside of our own small region. Can you spread the word about what’s going on in Williamstown?

Professor, data scientist, applied mathematician, social justice researcher and activist, nonprofit leader. See www.chadtopaz.com and www.qsideinstitute.org.

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