A young student participates in the Black Lives Matter rally Friday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Margot Besnard attended her first Black Lives Matter march in 2016.
Four years later, the issue is as pronounced as ever, and instead of being a marcher, she was an organizer.
Besnard and Erin Ostheimer, along with the grassroots organization Greylock Together, put out the call, and hundreds of area residents flocked to the Field Park rotary on Friday afternoon to express their anger at the death of George Floyd and their hunger for racial justice in America.
For some, it was their first such rally. For others, like Besnard, Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis Police was a sign that their movement is as relevant today as it was four years earlier.
"I think it was absolutely a sign that we need way bigger change," she said. "We need a way bigger awakening in our country. I don't think anybody, unfortunately, was surprised to learn that police brutality against black people still exists.
"[Floyd's death] makes me feel like we need so much more progress. And we need to work harder in our efforts to achieve change."
Ostheimer, who attended the January 2017 Women's March on Washington with Besnard, said her first reaction to the video of Floyd's death was one of discouragement.
"My gut reaction was: Not another one," Ostheimer said. "I can't believe we're doing this again. It's not surprising, but it's heartbreaking every time.
"But something to me that's been encouraging is Margot and I have been involved in these issues for years, but so many of my white friends have gotten involved and are speaking up and are learning. It's frustrating to me that this is the first time that these issues are making a big impact, seemingly, on a white group.
"But I think it's better that it's happening now than not happening at all."
A mostly white crowd in overwhelmingly white Williamstown was on hand for the first major public event to draw any kind of crowd in town in the COVID-19 era.
The vast majority of the demonstrators wore facial coverings and tried to keep their distance as much as possible from participants who were not related. But as Gov. Charlie Baker noted in his press conference on Friday afternoon, protests, when they do violate the state's guidelines on social distancing, at least are happening outdoors.
Unlike some demonstrations, though, Williamstown's was not a march but more of an occupation of the town's most well-known and well-used intersection — that of Routes 7 and 2 near town hall and the town library. Toward the end of the event, demonstrators did march in a circle around the rotary.
The protesters ranged in age from preschool-aged children through residents who may well have been their great-grandparents. Though the Williams College student population has been gone since mid-March, the crowd showed a healthy representation of high school and college-aged youth, many home prematurely from their respective colleges and universities.
Many held the familiar printed black and gold "Black Lives Matter" signs, but most of the signs were homemade, with slogans ranging from "Defund the Police" to "White Silence Equals White Consent." More than a few listed the names of other black victims of racial violence, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbrey.
There were no speakers, but the demonstrators did hear it from many of the drivers who wended through the rotary starting at about 4:30, when the first sign-holders began to stake out their positions. And positions on Field Park itself filled up, protesters started to ring the sidewalks around the outside of the traffic rotary and up North Street (Route 7) toward town hall.
Ostheimer and Besnard, who graduated from Mount Greylock Regional School in 2012 and 2013, respectively, each have graduated from college and are in town this summer for extended stays due to the pandemic. Besnard is heading to graduate school in the fall; Ostheimer, who earned a master's degree in social work, plans to move to Albany, N.Y., to pursue her career in family therapy or child welfare.
Both said their political consciousness was raised, in one way or another, during ventures to the southern United States.
"I've always been political and into social justice issues," Ostheimer said. "But I would say the turning point for me in terms of Black Lives Matter and our country's history of oppression of people of color was when I went on a trip to the South with my college.
"We traveled for a month to different places in the south, learning about the history of slavery and the civil rights movement. ... It's hard to do that and not feel passionate about this."
Besnard taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi before moving back to the Northeast.
"Part of the reason I wanted to be a teacher in Mississippi in the first place was because I wanted to learn about life in a completely different part of our country," she said. "I wanted to be around people who have different ideas than I do.
"And I learned from my students and from the staff at my school, the majority of whom were black, that we all have a role to play in a movement for ending systemic racism."
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