On A Weekend Of Protests, A Common Message With Wildly Different Tactics

Jun 8, 2020

About a dozen protests against police brutality and racism were scheduled across western Massachusetts over the weekend.

In Springfield’s East Forest Park neighborhood on Saturday afternoon, protesters chanted, “We want justice! Here in Springfield!”

City Council President Justin Hurst spoke to the crowd of several hundred.

“What happened to Mr. Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis came dangerously close to happening right here in this parking lot,” Hurst said.

A protester in front of a boarded-up Bank of America in Springfield, Massachusetts, where hundreds gathered in opposition to police brutality and white supremacy.
Credit Ben James / NEPR

There’s an Advance Auto, a Bank of America, and a pub — Nathan Bill’s — where four black men were beaten by off-duty police officers in 2015. That eventually led to a city legal settlement, criminal charges against those officers, as well as others accused of lying to cover up the attack.

Store owners boarded up their buildings in anticipation of the protests. 

“Pay attention to the backdrop,” said Rev. Talbert Swan, president of the Springfield NAACP, which organized the march with the Pioneer Valley Project. “I guess they thought we wouldn’t know where Nathan Bill’s was if they covered up the sign and boarded up the building.”

Swan said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and other city officials have been complicit with police violence. With Sarno's support, the city’s police commissioner recently allowed five officers charged with perjury in the Nathan Bill's case to return to duty.

Swan also spoke of the civil unrest in Minneapolis and other cities.

“I want you to understand that the reason it hasn’t happened here is because we have not got to that tipping point yet, but I submit to you we are one incident away from a powder keg blowing up here in the city of Springfield,” Swan said.

Store owners sent mixed messages in anticipation of the Springfield, Mass., protest on June 6, 2020.
Credit Ben James / NEPR

There was a thunderstorm brewing and the wind picked up, when the march from the parking lot to Nathan Bill Park began.

“Let’s march — in the name of Springfield, in the name of George Floyd!” Hurst said. “Let’s go!”

Reverend Talbert Swan, president of the Springfield, Mass., chapter of the NAACP, addresses the crowd at the conclusion of the Springfield march on June 6, 2020.
Credit Ben James / NEPR

The rain held off, mostly. The crowd — including at least three city councilors and Congressman Joe Kennedy III — met up in a circle at the park. Swan said a final prayer. 

Back outside Nathan Bill’s, union leader Tony Taylor reflected on the protest and its message. He’s black, and said he has every reason to be afraid in this city.

“It’s 3:00 in the morning, and a cop will stop me and ask me what am I doing out,” Taylor said. “I’m a grown-ass man. And this stuff has to stop.”

About the time things were winding down in Springfield, there was a very different march getting started in Northampton. The crowd of close to 5,000 people was more confrontational and less disciplined than in Springfield. 

It was organized by a single individual, Jasmine Sinclair of Black Trans Lives Matter.

“My highest, highest, highest, highest priority was to keep people safe — 100%,” Sinclair said. “All I wanted was to keep people safe.”

Sinclair had a list of specific demands for the city. Among them: cut the police budget by a third, and create a community oversight board for the Northampton Police Department. 

Close to 5,000 people gathered in Northampton, Mass., on June 6, 2020, to oppose police brutality and white supremacy.
Credit Ben James / NEPR

The sun was blaring in Northampton and some protesters were looking for shade. After moving the front edge of the march from the police station to city hall and back, Sinclair announced the event had concluded. 

“You are allowed to protest to your heart’s desire,” she said. “But please keep in mind the situation you might walk into.”

One block over things were just heating up. There had been photos on social media of dozens of state troopers and some armored vehicles. A quickly-swelling group of protesters, the vast majority white, were now engaged in a standoff with about 10 of those troopers. 

More officers stood further up the street, some restraining leashed German shepherds. Protesters yelled at the police, asking why the dogs were there, telling the officers  they were “complicit in violence” and asking how they slept at night.

In that moment, the police did not respond; their deployment the only message they chose to convey. 

Protesters engage in a standoff with Massachusetts State Police at the Northampton protest on june 6, 2020. Dozens of state police were deployed at the request of the Northampton Police Department.
Credit Ben James / NEPR

At one point an argument broke out among protesters about whether they should demand that officers kneel in solidarity. A tense standoff at a protest in Northampton earlier in the week ended when the police chief agreed to kneel with protesters. But on Saturday, chants of “Take a knee” were followed a few minutes later by “No knee! No knee!”

Almost an hour later, the troopers pulled back.

“Na na na na, na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!” the protesters sang.

The night wasn’t over. The crowd of a few hundred took over the main intersection downtown, and a protester needed medical attention. After the ambulance left, a dance party broke out.

There were similarities — and some stark differences — between the protests against police brutality and white supremacy in Northampton and Springfield. Plenty they agreed on, but tactically and tonally, they were worlds apart.