‘Is racism still alive in Northampton?’: Panelists talk Black Lives Matter, police at WHMP forum

Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — As progressive as it purports to be, the city has a long way to go when it comes to addressing racism, panelists said at a forum Wednesday night. They suggested that Northampton’s liberal reputation may in fact hinder residents from noticing the everyday discrimination black people face in this overwhelmingly white community.

“Northampton seems to think that black people are accepted, gay people are accepted. They say that and throw it aside,” said Northampton High School student Zion Scott Barbour. “That’s not true, that’s not how things are.”

The forum, organized and broadcast by radio station WHMP, drew about 30 people to The Parlor Room from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

It follows heated public debate about a Black Lives Matter sign that was hung on City Hall as part of the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations last month. The banner sparked backlash online, where some equated the symbol with hostile attitudes toward police or suggested instead that the sign should say “All Lives Matter,” a popular catchphrase among critics of the movement.

Earlier this month, following a request from the city’s police union, Mayor David J. Narkewicz said he will allow police to display a banner on City Hall commemorating National Police Week in May.

On Wednesday, Barbour, 16, was one of six panelists asked, when the city unfurled its Black Lives Matter banner, “was it going too far or not nearly far enough?” Sitting with him on stage were Amherst Regional School Committee Chairman Trevor Baptiste; Smith College student Traci Williams; Jeff Napolitano, western Massachusetts director of the American Friends Service Committee; and University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emeritus Bill Strickland. Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper was expected to participate but had the flu, so Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan took her place.

‘Move back to Africa’

During the forum, Barbour, who wrote about the banner in a column published by the Gazette, recounted several “microaggressions” he has faced at school, such as racist jokes at lunch, a fellow student who wore a Confederate flag hat and exclamations of “White Lives Matter” in peers’ social media accounts. More blatantly, Barbour described an interaction with a 12-year-old boy who he said told him to “move back to Africa.”

“Is racism still alive in Northampton?” Barbour said. “Yes, yes it is.”

Sitting in the front row, three of his Northampton High peers and fellow members of the Students of Color Alliance agreed with his characterization. “It’s not really super-blatant racism, it’s just jokes or small comments that I hear in the hallway that make me feel uncomfortable,” said freshman Bebe Leistyna, 14, adding that the lack of racial diversity in Northampton magnifies this.

Northampton is about 87 percent white, 8 percent Asian, 4 percent black, and less than 1 percent Native American or Pacific Islander, according to 2014 U.S. Census data. The city is about 8 percent Latino.

‘America is in denial’

The Black Lives Matter movement, Baptiste said, represents an effort to dismantle not only systemic racism, but other forms of oppression. Dating to 2013, the movement was founded by three black queer women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — following the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the white man who fatally shot him.

“To say black lives matter is not a denial of anybody else in the system, it’s to say the system has been based on devaluing black lives and I want to change the system,” Baptiste said.

Putting up a sign or showing solidarity does little good if white people do so out of guilt, rather than from a conviction that ending racism will improve society as a whole, he said. Referencing a quote often attributed to Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist, he added: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Understanding today’s Black Lives Matter movement, Strickland said, requires revisiting American history — the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era, as well as the 1960s “race riots,” a term he said disguises the unfair treatment by police to which black people were responding.

“The essence of racism is a double standard,” he said. “And America is in denial about its racism.”

Williams, 48, an Ada Comstock scholar at Smith, said this pervasive bias was particularly evident as she watched her daughter and two sons grow up, fearing that an encounter with law enforcement — which she said each of them had at one point — could leave them dead.

“Black people don’t need allies, we don’t need a gesture, we don’t need you to wear a button,” Williams said. “We need allegiance.”

Addressing the panelists as a member of the audience, Dennis Graham of Belchertown said he wanted people to realize that “as the black person, you’re not the problem,” and urged people of color not to worry about living up to white expectations. His comments rattled several panelists, who said progress requires more than individual hard work but systematic changes.

A focus on police

Much of Wednesday’s discussion focused on interactions between police and black communities, including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer who was cleared of civil rights violations — and whether a similar situation could occur here.

The larger question, Napolitano said, is “Are black folks treated differently from white folks in Northampton? And I think the answer is yes.”

He pointed to the case of Jonas Correia, who alleged that Northampton Police unlawfully arrested and used excessive force in March 2013, in an incident outside a downtown bar that was captured on video. The city’s insurance company last month agreed to pay Correia $52,500 in an out-of-court settlement.

Baptiste said while “all police are not bad police,” black people disproportionately feel the effects, and urged the country to move away from an “overarching deification” of law enforcement.

Sullivan said it’s clear the “criminal justice system in America has been broken.” He pointed to the mass incarceration that followed harsh sentencing for drug offenses, criticized the stop-and-frisk tactics employed for years in New York City and said there was no reason that Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died after being arrested and transported in a police van, should have seen that fate. Rebuilding trust with law enforcement agencies starts from the top, from a police chief and mayor who follow “the Golden Rule,” he said.

Someone in the audience shouted: “Accountability.”

Sullivan agreed: “We have to be honest with ourselves in these investigations.”

This month, the Northampton Police Department has begun to implement bias and systemic racism training developed by Kenneth Williams and Claire Halverson from the School for International Training’s Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont.

But to some this is a Band-Aid approach.

“Why are they being put out in the street if they haven’t gotten this training already?” Barbour asked, to applause and snaps from the audience.

Bridging the gap

The forum ended with a question from 17-year-old Aisha Diallo, who was born and raised in Northampton. She said she grew up hearing how progressive the city was, but recently realized that reputation might be a veneer. Looking at several empty seats in the room, she asked how the city can bridge the gap between people convinced they are progressive enough they don’t need to attend such an event, and those who say “All Lives Matter.”

Baptiste said it begins with recognition: “Open your eyes to it, see that it is the case.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


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