|DIRE Committee Concerned About 'Enough Is Enough' Messaging in Williamstown|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
04:00AM / Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Andrew Wells called in to the virtual meeting of the Diversity Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee to talk about the 2013 death of his daughter at the hands of a drunk driver in Plymouth.
That driver happened to be an off-duty state trooper, and it was almost a week before authorities informed Wells that alcohol had been involved in the accident.
"Every police officer on the scene lied to me at the hospital, lied to me throughout," Wells said. "At the end
of the day, this trooper was given a month and a half in the Martha's Vineyard jail."
Wells related the story to talk about how, in his experience, the "blue line" circles the wagons when it perceives a threat.
"The day of the arraignment, I watched the head of the State Police union walk into the courtroom with this trooper, who had done this while he was off duty," Wells said. "I guess what I would want to say is that I hope your committee and the town, especially the Select Board, would understand that for people like myself, who have always supported the police without reservation … after my experience and what I went through, to see that letter and then to see how the Select Board responded to that letter …
"Let's be clear, that letter was flat-out bullying. That letter was an attempt to intimidate, and it was an attempt to silence the conversation."
Wells said he was hesitant to speak at Monday's meeting because he was afraid his name would end up "on a list" and he would be watched by the local authorities.
"I understand full well what was going on and what that [union] letter was attempting to do," Wells said. "It somewhat broke my heart to read that [statement] from the Select Board at its last meeting. … What I felt you should have done as a Select Board was to offer a letter of support for [the DIRE Committee] because that's what was needed in that moment."
The committee members thanked Wells for his statement, expressed sympathy for his loss and took his message to heart.
"This work, sometimes it is debilitating and it is so hard," Drea Finley said. "I don't know if we're often as real with ourselves as we want to be about this work.
"I want to say thank you [to Wells] for speaking to the modes of power and the culture of power, because we know that systems of power will always work to maintain themselves. By calling that out and speaking that forward, that was a really great reminder, and I'm glad that you're still in this town and by the force of this work you want to stay.
"It also makes me want to stay, and it makes me want to continue. Sometimes, I need those precious reminders. Andrew, thank you for being my precious and gentle reminder because I needed that today, and I didn't even know I needed it."
Wells' remarks came near the end of the two-hour meeting, but the back-and-forth between the police union and the Select Board already was on the table for the committee.
On Oct. 5, the local police union released a letter
to the Select Board that cited low morale among the officers, identified the DIRE Committee by name and a "very small, one-sided group" for fostering an environment of hostility toward police and called out the Select Board for a lack of support for officers that the union termed "unacceptable."
In response, last week the Select Board issued a statement
that acknowledged the concerns that have led many in the community to question the local police department but asked residents to "respect and honor its members."
Members of the DIRE Committee were critical of the Select Board statement, particularly in light of what they perceive to be the board's non-recognition of the fear many in the community have expressed about a department they perceive as rife with racism and sexism.
"Because community members have expressed anxieties and fears around the Police Department and raised their voices to us and the Select Board, raised their voices to the Police Department, the response has been not an acknowledgement nor an addressing nor an action of saying, 'We heard you,'" Bilal Ansari said. "For the women who walk and breathe and exist in this town in fear, that has not been acknowledged, nor has it been addressed.
"What we have heard is that the police force feels like they're under hostile attack. The Select Board says, 'Enough is enough,' basically … reinforcing those signs going up all over town. That is shutting down the ability for us to express ourselves.
"Saying, 'Enough is enough. We don't want to hear it no more.' That is the sentiment."
Aruna D'Souza seconded Ansari's sentiment.
"People have been expressing real concern, real pain, real feelings of unease, real feelings of fear, and those have gone unaddressed," D'Souza said. "But the minute the police say, 'We feel under siege,' the Select Board comes out and makes a statement.
"The Select Board is telling us who they value and who is important in this town and who is not."
The DIRE Committee spent much of Monday's meeting discussing how it will recommend the town comply with the "Not in Our County Pledge" affirmed by an overwhelming margin at August's annual town meeting. Article 36 on the town meeting warrant said, in part, that "The Town of Williamstown, as well as its representatives and agencies, will report a representative and unbiased picture of any and all hate, exclusion, or intolerance they may witness as being directed towards an individual or group based on any of the above demographics."
Committee member Andrew Art shared research he had compiled on incident reporting forms from other municipalities and institutions and asked his colleagues to reflect on them and provide feedback over the next meeting or two.
A couple of the members expressed a concern that the town not put too much onus on the person reporting what they witness.
"What these forms are doing is trying to locate whether an actionable event has occurred and not whether a racist event has occurred or a sexist event or something like that," D'Souza said. "So, they're asking for a lot of information. I've been in situations before where, if I were an employee looking to deal with a colleague's behavior toward me or a town agency's behavior …
"I'm not sure if this is the first step of reporting that would make me comfortable. I would probably look at this and say, 'I'm not even sure if what happened, happened.' … I would say one of the things I would like us to think about is maybe a two-step reporting thing, one that is a little less of an incident report and more: I need to report this thing that happened and need to have a conversation with someone in the town about it."
That conversation may lead to a more formal complaint, D'Souza said. But requiring a formal complaint to get the process going would have a chilling effect.