Students witness racist incident; questions remain unanswered

Ella Marx and Kiara Royer

Part of a wooden stake that once held a Black Lives Matter sign still stands outside the First Congregational Church. (Ella Marx/The Williams Record)

Arianna Barzacanos ’24 and Iman Shumburo ’24 were walking in front of Chapin Hall around 5:45 p.m. on Feb. 12 when they heard shouting coming from the direction of Route 2.

Barzacanos told the Record that she noticed three young individuals — who presented as male, white, and approximately age 12 to 14 — walking on the sidewalk from Route 2 towards Paresky. “They were chanting, they were shouting, they were holding a sign,” she said. “Like, is this some sort of protest? Why is it just these three boys? And then we paused to watch.”

“We started to hear racial slurs,” Shumburo said in an interview with the Record. “It sounded like they were calling each other ‘you stupid N-word,’ they were referring to cars that passed by ‘shut up, you N-word,’ … and they were referring to each other using that language.” (Shumburo, an executive editor at the Record, was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.)

Barzacanos and Shumburo watched the group throw the sign to the ground outside of Paresky and walk inside. When Barzacanos and Shumburo reached Paresky, they saw that the discarded sign was a Black Lives Matter sign that was visibly damaged and followed the group inside. “You could see that the bottom of the sign was mangled, and it had been pretty aggressively ripped out [of the ground],” Barzacanos said.

“I started running into Paresky to go see where they were going because I was worried that they were going to run through Paresky shouting racial slurs at students and terrorizing everybody,” Shumburo said. “They stepped into Paresky when they’re not allowed in Paresky, and I was terrified of that. I should not be terrified to be at my student center. I wasn’t just terrified for me, I was terrified that there would be a Black peer sitting there, and that they would start harassing them. This happened on our campus, you know? These are people who came onto our campus and polluted the air with their words.”

At the time, Shumburo said that although she wasn’t certain where the group had obtained the sign, she thought it may have been the Black Lives Matter sign posted on the lawn outside the First Congregational Church located along Route 2. At the time of publication, a piece of the sign’s wooden pole, painted white, is still visible in the grass outside the First Congregational Church, and the church’s staff confirmed that the sign is their property.

“Our building manager put [the sign] here on a post painted white because we, the Church, wanted to make sure that when we’re facing the College community … our values and our beliefs are represented to the public,” Elayne Murphy, office administrator at the First Congregational Church, told the Record.

Interim Senior Minister of the First Congregational Church Mark Seifried told the Record in an email that, after a meeting of the Church Council last night, the Church has decided to re-hang its large Black Lives Matter banner that was displayed for most of the past two years to demonstrate its commitment to anti-racism. “We reaffirm the ‘Not in Our County’ pledge to call out racism, antisemitism, and other cultures of oppression as we seek to become a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just community,” he wrote.

After seeing the group go to the lower floor of Paresky, Barzacanos and Shumburo looked over the railing of the building’s main level and saw the group standing by the vending machines on the lower level.“I’m peering over to get a good look at them, [then] they turnaround at Iman and me and say something along the lines of ‘what are you looking at, bitches,’ [which felt] very aggressive, very hostile,” Barzacanos said.

“Then they start whispering amongst each other,” Shumburo said. “Honestly, I think I tuned it out because I didn’t want to hear anything I didn’t want to hear.”

Shumburo then took a photo of the group while standing on Paresky’s upper level and called Campus Safety Services (CSS) while Barzacanos went to recover the sign from outside before the group could retrieve it. According to students Shumburo talked to who were tabling in Paresky as the group walked in the adolescents were pushing boxes on top of trash cans to the floor and walking around maskless — which is against College COVID-19 rules.

When Shumburo called CSS, she was first asked whether the situation was an emergency, to which she answered no. Shumburo was then put on hold for four minutes before she explained the situation to the dispatcher. According to Barzacanos, the responding CSS officer arrived at Paresky within five minutes of Shumburo’s call and then took the sign— which was later returned to the church — while the group headed towards Spring Street. “I was satisfied with how quickly they responded,” Barzacanos said.

Director of CSS Eric Sullivan said that following Shumburo’s call, CSS “contacted the [Williamstown Police Department(WPD)], canvassed the area, and made attempts to identify the individuals,” he wrote in an email to the Record.

“After immediately checking the area with [CSS], we were not able to locate or identify anyone involved with these actions,” Interim WPD chief Michael Ziemba wrote in an email to the Record. “Anyone with information that could help us identify the youths should call the police department or notify [CSS].”

CSS is currently working with the WPD and the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (OIDEI) to investigate the incident. “CSS does not comment on ongoing investigations,” Sullivan wrote.

In the wake of the incident, Barzacanos and Shumburo noted that they were contacted by both Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leticia S. E. Haynes ’99 and Assistant Dean for Sophomore Year Students Tamanika Steward who offered messages of support. “We have reached out to the two students who reported this incident to [CSS] — we would like to make sure they are doing okay and provide any additional support,” Haynes wrote in an email to the Record.

But, Shumburo characterized the experience as disempowering, isolating, and confusing.

“I found that during the whole time, I felt I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” Shumburo said. “I didn’t feel like I had a number to call that I felt safe calling that would result in success. And yes, CSS’s initial response was adequate. But from this point on, what is going to be done to make sure that people of color and people like me feel safe?”

This article was updated at 11:50 a.m. on Feb. 16 to include comment from Seifried.