Guest columnist Ali Wicks-Lim: Racism is in our way

Amherst Town Hall

Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By ALI WICKS-LIM

Published: 03-14-2024 2:45 PM

On March 14, 2022 the Amherst Town Council easily passed a resolution in support of Ukraine. On Oct. 16, 2023 they easily passed a resolution against Hamas, in solidarity with Israel. On Monday, after months of retaliation and collective punishment from the Israeli government causing over 30,000 Palestinian deaths and over 72,000 injuries, the council struggled in a contentious debate about whether to pass a resolution in support of a cease-fire to stop the violence and show solidarity with Palestinians. The racism is glaring.

The Town Council meeting on March 4 was hard to witness.

The resolution was put forward by a diverse group of Amherst residents, with Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, and Arab Americans playing central roles in the organizing and outreach. It was jointly sponsored by more than 750 town residents and three council members: Pat DeAngelis, Ellisha Walker, and Mandi Jo Hanneke. It was endorsed by more than 60 community organizations and businesses.

Eighty speakers participated in public comment, 67 passionately supporting the resolution. Nearly two months were spent preparing for this long overdue and already once-delayed moment.

Instead of the easy process for previous resolutions though, Councilor Andy Steinberg suggested making substantive changes to the proposed resolution, changes that would de-center the needs of Palestinians and change the spirit of the resolution. His idea appealed to other councilors — and this is where Amherst’s whiteness stands in the way of living up to the progressive ideals it claims to hold. Whiteness tells town councilors who have not been organizing for months that their ideas are more important than moving the work forward and prioritizing the needs of those most impacted.

We listened while councilors Steinberg, George Ryan, Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney argued vigorously that we should “compromise” on the language of the resolution, as if by watering down our solidarity with Palestinians we could somehow appease those who feel the violence against them is justified.

Many of the 13 speakers opposing the resolution also claimed that the Town Council has no place in foreign policy and should focus only on local issues. It’s worth naming that when the council was passing resolutions in solidarity with Ukraine and Israel, there was no such complaint.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: How’s this for Amherst’s new name? Emily
South County Senior Center opts not to renew church lease after rift over LGBTQ program
Martha Jorz: Stop supporting UMass and Raytheon
Annette Pfannebecker: Vote yes for Shores Ness and for Deerfield
UMass faculty, librarians vote no confidence in chancellor over protest breakup
Don Michak: Dig deeper after scandalous court ruling in Soldiers' Home case

It is racist to only take issue with engagement in international politics when the people needing solidarity and support are people of color. It is also anti-democratic to suggest that local organizing can’t influence national and global issues because it presumes that local constituencies have no power to influence our elected representatives. Finally, it ignores that tax dollars are being used to fund the genocide in Palestine.

Contempt toward the public by some of the council members was clear from the meeting’s start. Council President Lynn Griesemer threatened repeatedly to end the meeting even for even quiet finger-snapping in solidarity between speakers. People invested in achieving a vote and approving the resolution were silenced by this tactic for the majority of the meeting, but many held up signs that read “vote” when it felt clear that the intention was to close the meeting without voting.

It is racist when people of color have to come before a predominantly white council to ask for support, and solidarity for them is silenced and the process itself is threatened.

When the council appeared to be closing the meeting with no vote on the original resolution, some stood and yelled “shame!” or booed. The Gazette reported that members of the public created a barrier around the Town Council, but that is inaccurate. There was a police presence at the front of the room and I never saw them need to intervene. No town councilors even tried to leave. Reporting that makes people sound dangerous when they are simply trying to be heard is racist.

Throughout the meeting Steinberg and Ryan both complained they felt “uncomfortable” or “unheard.” Ryan even unleashed a long accusatory rant toward the public.

Imagine being so protected that an environment where people reject your proposal and insist you do your job and take a vote intimidates/infuriates you? When you accept power, you should expect some discomfort to come with it. It takes a unique level of fragility and privilege to invoke words like “bullied” and “harassed” when people who have been harmed are simply advocating for an idea that wasn’t your own.

The March 4 meeting was about a resolution for a cease-fire that was designed to show solidarity with Palestinians, those most harmed by the actions of Israel’s military and government since Oct. 7. Public comments also included a large number of Jews who objected to the violence against Palestinians.

The way the meeting unfolded highlighted how whiteness gets in the way of progress in Amherst. Too many decision-makers are too protected by their own identities. Steinberg, Ryan, Taub and Rooney really felt they needed their own ideas to be integrated into that resolution. They were so sure they were right that they were unable to hear the voices of those who disagreed. They dismissed the concerns of the overwhelming number of people who spent months advocating for a cease-fire as an obstruction to their process.

And for what? So they could claim to have made everyone happy when really they made no one happy?

Leadership needs to change and people in Amherst need to stop trying to make sure everyone is comfortable and be willing to listen to and stand with impacted people.

Ali Wicks-Lim, formerly of Amherst, lives in Montague.