The man standing on the curb may have my favorite sign of the day — Fear is the mind killer. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but I recognize the mantra from Frank Herbert’s Dune. And that’s what today is about, I think: Facing fear. And then I see the girl beside him holding her own sign: They can’t build a wall around my heart.
We are standing in a crowd outside the First Church of Christ in Park Square. I have never seen so many people in downtown Pittsfield outside of a Third Thursday summer street festival, and it’s barely 20 degrees this afternoon. We have been standing and walking together outdoors for close on 45 minutes, and here we are in a snow flurry waiting to find out whether the church has room for us all, and the cold doesn’t seem to matter.
On Saturday afternoon (January 2017), some 2,000 people (according to the Berkshire Edge, the Pittsfield Police Department, Ethan Zuckerman and the Rev. James Lumsden of First Church) marched up North Street in a rally with the Four Freedoms Coalition.
The Four Freedoms come from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: On Jan. 6, 1941, in the middle of World War II, he gave the State of the Union speech that inspired Norman Rockwell’s well-known paintings — Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech and Freedom to Worship.
The coalition, a non-partisan organization newly formed after the November 2016 election, led this rally against bigotry and prejudice, with U.S. Sen. Edward Markey; U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield; attorney James Roosevelt, grandson of Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt; local elected officials and speakers from the community.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Waiting for the march to begin, I stood in the growing crowd in front of St. Joseph’s and watched people streaming up the sidewalk to join in. And they kept coming. When the organizers asked us to line up five or six people deep, the line wound back up the church driveway until I couldn’t see the road. I fell in behind the 350MA banner, and people around me were greeting each other, close friends or bare acquaintances who hadn’t met in years.
An old friend, Daniel Beck, came past with his 8-year-old son, Stellan, and we looked out at the growing line of people. My feet were aching, my hands felt too cold to work a camera, and I was grinning. Half invisible behind a scarf, I felt myself relaxing, sharing glances and signs with people who felt it was important to be here. Daniel told me Stellan had asked him why people gather like this.
We walked up North Street together, so far from the front of the line that by the time we reached Park Square the church was filled, and so was the overflow watching area. Why had we all come?
“In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led one of the greatest marches this country has ever seen, building on Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to determine who is entitled to them,” said Sen. Markey, warming up the program that followed.
Powerful movements have also started here, he said — from the American Revolution and abolitionism to universal health care and marriage equality.
But in 1941, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms did not include all Americans, said Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP. If they had, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts of the 1960s would have been unnecessary.
Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for a universal declaration of human rights, he said. And around Powell speakers looked at the freedoms and their state today.
James Roosevelt saw unprecedented attacks ahead on all four. On Freedom of speech, he saw the banning of the press from political events and the increase in fake news. Freedom of worship has been attacked for the first time in 75 years, he said, and legislation that prevents the freedom from want has come under threat. And many people are afraid.
Eleanore Velez, Berkshire Community College Multicultural Center Director, stepped to the mike with humor and sadness.
“Have you ever been in a house of mirrors? You see yourself with big hips or a cone head, and it’s fun.”
But not when the images are distorted, she said. She speaks as a teacher and friend, a warm and intelligent woman.
“When I stand before you a mother and a mentor … and you hear my accent and ask where I’m from, and I say Mexico, and you see a criminal.”
“No one sent me here,” she said. “People come here because they are fleeing places of danger — because there is no picture of them where they can put their children to bed” and they can sleep in peace, as the children do in Rockwell’s painting.
She gave a vision of those freedoms as deeply valuable — and fragile.
“The American Dream is not dead,” she said. “It’s quite alive. I see it every year at graduation. … But I can tell you dreams can turn into nightmares.”
Some of her fellow speakers offered ways to turn the nightmares back.
“Find out what your own beliefs are and what others believe in,” said Attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, board member of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
When she tells people what she believes, it is starkly clear how many people tell her they did not know.
“If you don’t hold a faith, that’s ok,” she said. “Hold onto your friends, your families. … This is our global community and the rights we are owed and owe each other.”
Ayla Wallace, a student at Miss Hall’s in Pittsfield, remembered her 10-year-old sister studying slavery in school. Later, at home, they were watching a news segment on current events, shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Her sister said, “I thought you told me slavery was ended.”
Wallace performed a spoken word piece that she wrote in response to that evening: “… You still have me in chains, but this time I’m too loud. This time, I’m too proud to be me …”
And when the crowd rose for a standing ovation, the sound swept through that vast open space.
From up on the balcony, I took comfort in the sound. It was good to be in that crowd and feel it move in response. But beyond this moment of warmth, why are we here?
Each speaker gave an answer.
The Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross from First Baptist Church of Pittsfield: To harden our resolve and to keep on taking action.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer: To be good citizens to each other.
U.S. Sen. Markey: To commit ourselves to the values that matter.
U.S. Rep. Neal: To feel faith instead of fear.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center on Civic Media: To speak, because we can, and to listen, because we need to.
And then Pittsfield City Council President Peter Marchetti put it into plain words: To tell people they’re not alone.
“The most uncomfortable thing I do as an elected official is to speak about myself,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, my private life was private.”
Now, he said, when he makes a statement about his life, he makes it for other people who need to stand up for themselves, because people who feel alone are more likely to give up hope, and people in company are more likely to go on.
“I’m not here as a member of the gay community or as an elected official; I’m here as a member of the community,” he said. “… and we can unite every day.”
Velez sounded that note too, bringing her talk to a close. She spoke across the packed, silent room as simply as she might to a student across her desk.
“Beneath the skin, there is just a human being.”
And the crowd came to their feet for her, as one.
In the photo at the top, marchers walk down North Street in Pittsfield during the Four Freedoms Coalition rally against prejudice on Jan. 7. Photo by Kate Abbott