HANSON — The Black Lives Matter movement, having moved from cities to the suburbs and rural communities in recent weeks, arrived in Hanson in time to coincide with Juneteenth last week.
About 100 residents, wearing protective masks and distanced six feet apart, gathered on the Hanson Town Hall Green Friday, June 19 to protest racism and call for change.
“We have faced name-calling … been told [after a cheering competition] to go back to where I came from,” said longtime resident Cheryl Nolan. “This is my home, and I will fight for it to continue to be my home and I’d like to thank all of you who are here today — it saddens me that there are not more — for coming out and standing up for what’s right. Racism is wrong.”
While no specific event in town spurred the rally, DiMascio and Dias said recent national events such as the killing of George Floyd and resulting protests across the country inspired the event — which coincidentally fell on Juneteenth after an organizational delay.
Juneteenth is a traditional African-American commemoration of June 19, 1865 when the last slaves in Galveston, Texas were told of their emancipation after the Civil War ended.
“[We] got together to talk about having something in Hanson and thought it would be a great idea to bring something like this to Hanson,” Marianne DiMascio said of a conversation with Recreation Committee member Juvelyn Hartwig and Health Board Chairman Arlene Dias.
“But I grew up here, I went to high school here and, when that happened with [Floyd], it triggered memories of things that I hadn’t thought about in years that happened,” Dias said. “I believe there are subtle things that happened — people aren’t blatantly racist, but it’s still here and people need to be aware of the fact that it’s not OK. But it’s one of those things, in a small town, you don’t talk about it.”
Hartweg, who was not able to attend, wrote of similar experiences her children have had in a speech on the importance of allyship, read by Becca LeValle, also of Hanson.
“I’m so grateful that many of you are willing to stand for me, maybe with me or by me,” Hartweg, a woman of color who has biracial children, wrote. “But we also recognize that not everyone’s experience has been the same, or even pleasant, at times.”
Hartweg asked the crowd to think about unconscious biases or behaviors, that can often be second-nature. She wrote about a black contractor doing business in her neighborhood who was greeted with suspicion, as well as a time when her son was given the nickname “chimp” while in the second grade. At the time, she was advised to move on and not rock the boat, when she approached school officials.
“I’m asking you today to not move on — and to rock that damned boat,” Hartwig wrote. “Today, I ask you to be an ally.”
As Dias put it before the program, “At some point we need to to bring it out and say, ‘OK, air it to the sunshine.”
Elected officials attending included Selectmen Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett, Kenny Mitchell, Wes Blauss and Jim Hickey, as well as state Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Pembroke. Selectman Matt Dyer was unable to attend.
The program began with chants of, “No Justice, No Peace,” “Silence is Violence,” and “Black Lives Matter,” after which, Nicholas Donohue read an acknowledgement that the gathering stood on land was stolen from indigenous people through genocide and forced removal. It ended with a recitation of the names of some of the black Americans to die as a result of police violence in recent years, and a moment of silence — a process taking eight minutes and 45 seconds, the time George Floyd struggled to breathe under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
“We’re here today to unite against racism and for equality and justice,” DiMascio then told the crowd, noting that the Black Lives Matter movement is beginning to correct past mistakes. “It can redefine who we are as a people and it can move our communities forward.”
But the main focus was on elevating the voices of people of color in the community, while stressing that the gathering was not meant to be anti-police.
“But we want to live in a community where everyone is safe, is fully accepted, and we want to push back against any structures, policies or biases to keep that from happening,” DiMascio said of police violence seen across the country. “Our silence is unacceptable, but our collective power is unstoppable.”
Erin Slayton, a 2014 W-H graduate, now a high school English teacher, noted that she is a biracial woman of African-American and Irish heritage.
“I like to believe there are lessons in all things,” she said. “My experiences with individual racism have taken the shape of ugly words — ‘You’re not black enough,’ or ‘You talk like you’re white’ — have shape-shifted into unprompted hair-touching, racial profiling. I am both black and white, never one or another. That is intersectionality.”
Ayala Royster’s Tennessee-born grandfather was born the in 1914, himself the grandson of slaves, and raised as a share-cropper on the same plantation where his ancestors were property. The family had been unable to leave the plantation due to a lack of assets.
Her grandfather migrated to Chicago in the 1920s, where he met her grandmother. They later moved to Hobson City, Ala., the second-oldest all-black community in the United States, a community founded as a by-product of racism in an effort to keep black residents separate from the city of Oxford. Black residents of Hobson City founded their own K-12 school.
“They developed businesses and became a safe place for all black people to visit during the Jim Crow Era, while passing through the state of Alabama,” said Royster, a Hanover resident. “There is where we would learn about black success. There we were able to see that our story and contributions to America did not begin and end with slavery.”
She said celebrating Juneteenth reminds her of that slavery, despite the inventions, medical advancements, business success and military service and heroism of black Americans.
“I’m celebrating all the strange fruit that has been strung from the trees,” she said through tears. “When I celebrate Juneteenth, I’m celebrating the creation of Hobson City, the place of my birth. … I’m celebrating all of my grandfather’s dreams that he had for me.”
Hanson Police Chief Michael Miksch was among those addressing the rally attendees.
“The Hanson Police will work with you,” Miksch said, adding when he was originally asked to speak, he did not think he had anything to add, but changed his mind after speaking with Hartwig and Dias. “We want to hear you. If we’re doing something you don’t like, or you think is wrong, please tell us. If we don’t discuss it, all we’re going to have is conflict and we’re never going to solve anything.”
Like Whitman Police Chief Timothy Hanlon noted after Floyd’s death, that police in Massachusetts are not trained in the techniques that were used in Minneapolis.
“I have yet to meet a police officer that agrees, in any way, with what happened in Minneapolis,” Miksch said. “The only way I can look at that is a lack of humanity.”
Participants marched around the town hall before holding their placards in a visibility opportunity on the sidewalk along Liberty Street.
DiMascio also announced a new community Facebook page — Hanson United Against Racism — and a Twitter page, @HansonUnited.
As with similar area rallies, there was voter information provided at he event.