Members of the Amherst town community met at local cafe and deli The Black Sheep on Monday, Mar. 6 to discuss the current political climate and ways in which Amherst residents can take action on their concerns. The event, funded and organized by The Black Sheep, was free and open to people in the Pioneer Valley.
Guest speaker Bill Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts Legal Office at the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke to the audience about what he believed were priorities in light of recent actions by President Donald Trump’s administration. He began by reminding attendees that his statements did not represent the ACLU, as it is a nonpartisan institution.
“We don’t need to, I think, engage the troops of Amherst to say we want to be in opposition to Donald Trump and his anti-democratic authoritarian regime — I got that,” he said. “The question is, what are we going to do?”
According to Newman, elections are one of the main channels through which citizens can show their discontentment with or opposition to Trump’s policies.
He mentioned two upcoming elections in Georgia and Montana and said that if Republican candidates lost these elections, it would undermine the Republican argument that party members who supported Trump would retain popular support.
Newman talked about the importance of paying attention to Massachusetts state issues and reminded attendees of legislative reforms on the state’s upcoming agenda, including criminal justice reform.
“I think that we can agree … that states still are the laboratories of democracy, and we have the state that has both the reality and the potential future realization of being a community, or set of communities, that the rest of the country can envy,” said Newman.
Newman also discussed the position of immigrants and refugees in the U.S. under President Trump’s policies and voiced his support for sanctuary cities across Massachusetts.
“Sanctuary cities matter, sanctuary campuses matter and sanctuary congregations matter,” he said. “Sanctuary cities do not have strict, or even loose, legal definition — they don’t. But the notion that local police should enforce local laws seems to be almost self-evident.”
It is important to be smart protesters and train in nonviolent direct action during a time when protests are frequent and necessary, Newman said.
Because the Women’s March earlier this year and other rallies across the country have been well-organized and mostly peaceful, “I think we’ve lost track of the reality that as protest goes on, as Trump’s supporters become … more vehement, as the police become, as Trump would have it, untethered or unleashed, that there’s going to be pushback when there’s protest,” said Newman.
“I do not necessarily mean at all that people have to, or should … engage in civil disobedience, but I do think that if you’re going to be at protests, you should know how to be safe,” he added.
After addressing the crowd, Newman answered questions from audience members, discussing topics such as nonviolent protest training, undocumented immigrants’ rights and hate crimes.
The Black Sheep is currently holding monthly community dinners to address various topics of concern to the public. Monday’s meeting was the second such event held. As interest in the event has increased, the dinner series’ organizers are considering moving to a larger location for their next meeting.
Nick Seamon, the owner of The Black Sheep, developed the idea and planning for the community dinners.
“I felt like there was a need, especially with Trump’s election, for people to have a place to get together … to have a sense of community and to learn something,” said Seamon.
“We’re going to do it as long as necessary,” he said. “There’s a lot to talk about — we’ve had an impeachment attorney, we’ve had an ACLU attorney, we’re having somebody talk about climate change, somebody talking about Muslim identity in the United States and its effects [and] we’re trying to get someone up here from New York from John Jay College of Criminal Justice to talk. So we’re trying to come at this from many angles.”
Correction: The headline and article previously misstated that the town of Amherst held the community gatherings. The Black Sheep is funding, organizing and hosting the meetings independently and not in affiliation with the town. This article was updated at 9:21 p.m. on Mar. 16, 2017.