Northampton panel explores racial tensions, asks ‘Can Ferguson happen here?’

Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Leaders in law enforcement and community organizers came face to face for a discussion on race, protests and white privilege this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I could have 100 Ph.D.s and be the director of whatever, but I bet you I still get followed in a store,” Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an archaeology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, said to a packed sanctuary in Edwards Church on Monday afternoon.

Battle-Baptiste, 43, of Pelham, was on a panel called “Can Ferguson Happen Here?” organized as part of American Friends Service Committee’s 30th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. It was one of several events scheduled in the Valley over the holiday weekend to commemorate the slain civil rights leader, and was followed by a reception and vigil in the Unitarian Universalist Church on Main Street.

Also on the panel sat Vanessa Lynch, a member of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter; Charnice Charmant, a junior at Smith College who has organized anti-racism events on campus; Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz; Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan; and Ward 7 City Councilor Alisa Klein.

Moderator the Rev. Peter Ives commended the police for protecting protesters from cars during recent rallies in the city, and Sienkiewicz described efforts on his part to raise the standards for who can become a police officer in Northampton.

Sienkiewicz said that one thing he had learned while moving up the ranks in the police force was that, “You do no harm” to the people you’re trying to protect.

But Lynch expressed her disagreement with the praises directed at local police, recalling that police have brought dogs to all of the marches she has been part of across the Valley.

Lynch, 23, of Northampton, said she does not feel safe calling the police when there is a problem, nor does she feel safer with officers of color because she believes they have internalized the racism directed at them.

Charmant, 20, of Brooklyn, New York, recalled an incident where she claims a friend of hers who is of color was arrested in Northampton after being hit by her white Smith College roommate.

What is needed, Lynch said, is a “total system overhaul.”

Sullivan told the crowd that he believes society criminalizes behaviors it creates. He cited childhood trauma and untreated mental illness as examples, and questioned why treatment cannot be as readily available as punishment.

He said he believes it is possible that Ferguson, in which weeks of protests followed the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in a St. Louis suburb, could happen in the Valley.

“We hope it doesn’t, but it could,” he said.

He said he believes Sienkiewicz has done his best as chief, but noted that neither of them can understand the experience of racism.

“We have to look in the mirror. Russ and I are white,” Sullivan said.

From his interactions with people of different races, Sullivan said he has learned that when white families talk to their adolescent children about sex, black families talk to theirs about staying alive.

“That touches me more than anything,” he said.

Battle-Baptiste, a mother of three, told audience members that she was speaking to them not just as an academic, but as a parent, and noted that two of her children are boys who will grow up to be black men whose safety she fears for.

She gave encouraging words to youth organizers.

“Don’t be afraid of Twitter. Don’t be afraid of young people,” Battle-Baptiste said.

She noted that the protests that were part of the civil rights movement in the 1950s were organized by young people. Before the panel, the event began with a film clip of the Martin Luther King documentary “Legacy of a Dream” that showed footage of King organizing in his 20s.

“We’re not going to stop till people are free,” Battle-Baptiste said. She received a standing ovation.

At the close of the panel, the Rev. Andrea Ayvazian of the Haydenville Congregational Church urged the crowd not to forget about what they learned that day.

“We can’t go home and go to sleep, white people,” she said. “This is not a moment. This is a movement.”

‘No shhh factor’

Monday’s events in the city also included the annual historical tour of Florence and a children’s event at the Florence Community Center organized by team of volunteers led by Clark University history professor Ousmane Power-Greene of Northampton and his wife, Melissa.

More than 100 people filled a meeting room in the Community Center. As musicians sang at the front of the room, rambunctious children took part in activities that included making paper cutouts of people using different colors of construction paper and writing their dreams on Post-it notes and sticking them on a large poster on the wall that read “I have a dream.” Children also took turns reading passages from King’s speeches at the front of the room.

Though the noise level was at a constant high, Power-Greene playfully told the crowd that there was “no ‘Shhh’ factor.”

Power-Greene has put on the program for around five years, but this is the first time he has held it as part of the city’s Martin Luther King Day events. Parents said they find it a good educational resource for their children.

Jeff Thomas of Florence was there Monday with his 8-year-old daughter, Nora, a second-grader at Leeds School. He said she often asks him questions that deal with the topic of race.

“As a parent, you’ve got to decide when is a good time to talk about that,” he said. “It’s hard to tell a kid not to ask questions.”

He said his daughter is interested in the civil rights movement, and has asked him questions about slavery and about race riots that appear on the news.

“She doesn’t understand why some people don’t like each other just because of the color of their skin.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at


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