Welcome to the Bluest of Blue States

“Hitler should have killed all the Jews!” I’m walking in my neighborhood in Narragansett, Rhode Island when I encounter a neighbor with whom I’ve had a series of discussions regarding the endless barking of his dog. A casual observer might recoil at my neighbor’s words, but hate speech, unless it leads to violence, is protected by the Constitution, and specifically Article 1 of the Bill of Rights. As a writer, I can appreciate the protections that the founding document gives me, but who wants the kind of reaction that resulted from a simple discussion? The neighbor also referred to my writing, letters and commentary that appeared in the state’s major newspaper, the Providence Journal, in his verbal attack. Intolerance involves many issues, but someone who speaks out and is considered different can be the target for hate. What the neighbor’s reaction did to me made me very leery of speaking to anyone in a similar situation and that situation came up once again soon after my wife Jan and I moved to Egremont, Massachusetts.

Egremont is a town of just over 1,000 people in the southwest corner of Massachusetts in what are called the Berkshire Hills. The town backs up against a similar and slightly larger town in upstate New York. The town is beautiful to look at in terms of a rural environment. There are farms that remain here and many second-home owners flocking to the area from the greater New York metropolitan area. More people came here to stay during the pandemic, some buying homes. The costs of homes and rentals have risen astronomically here in recent years as inflation skyrockets. Middle-class and working-class people could not possibly expect to settle here. Income inequality is not reflected in the median income of residents since the income of second-home owners is not counted here.

The hate speech I encountered in Rhode Island has morphed exponentially in the intervening years across the US and has led to some horrific outcomes, but national and global issues are beyond the consideration of this commentary.

Soon after moving to Egremont, the same situation happened with hours of barking by a neighbor’s dog. With my Rhode Island experience in mind, I asked the police to intervene, and they did. My reticence in discussing that issue was more than justified when I got up to address an issue at the annual town meeting over five years ago. When I began speaking, the neighbor just mentioned began laughing hysterically at me. That was the last time I attended a town meeting and it reinforced my beliefs about how far some in this society have come from any form of tolerance. Forget acceptance: this is bald-face intolerance.

Intolerance is different in the Berkshires and it may have to do with the number of my coreligionists who either live here, or have second homes here. The term “New Yorker” is used as a kind of substitute here for  registering displeasure with a specific group, the group of which I’m a member.

Section 11H of Massachusetts general laws lays out what constitutes bullying in the state:

“Whenever any person or persons, whether or not acting under color of law, interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion, or attempt to interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion, with the exercise or enjoyment by any other person or persons of rights secured by the constitution or laws of the United States, or of rights secured by the constitution or laws of the commonwealth, the attorney general may bring a civil action for injunctive or other appropriate equitable relief in order to protect the peaceable exercise or enjoyment of the right or rights secured.”

It’s a straightforward law, but try to get either a civil liberties organization or attorney to take a case where bullying is involved and the issue rapidly turns into a joke. Discuss bullying with another person and the most that can be expected is recognition of the problem or ignoring the issue. A gym acquaintance said to get used to bullying because it’s the normal state of affairs in the US.

In army basic training, I witnessed a similar issue. During basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, a scapegoat, a reservist from Brooklyn, New York was harassed mercilessly by drill sergeants. It didn’t matter that much who the target of the harassment was, what was important was setting an example of just how far the drill sergeants would go to create absolute control over those of us in this particular training cycle. With bullies, it’s all about control and bullying takes on a special status when the bully is a male. A recent president of the United States made bullying part of his way of dealing with those he didn’t like and some people he had never met. He even bullied a physically-challenged person and his base turned its eyes away.

For years, similar and unending harassment has taken place in the town in western Massachusetts where I live. Bullying is the norm, or at least for me who some town employees/officials see as different and a valid target for harassment and bullying. When I asked the son of a town official to consider slowing down on an abutting driveway near our property because of several hours during which huge plumes of dust covered our property caused by a huge truck that person drove, the bullying and harassment by another town official began within days. It was a simple request, not done in any threatening or menacing way and the results have gone on for years now.

The town official began a three-pronged targeted harassment, which included speeding up and down the same driveway, repeatedly sounding the horn on his truck, and blasting his truck’s radio. This harassment continued for three months.

Years earlier, an official from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination observed that “They do things differently in the Berkshires” in regard to how some people are viewed as outsiders and can expect to be treated differently. Naysayers in the town’s government will say this is all sour grapes because I applied for a vacant school committee position and later a job as personnel director. I applied for the first job to enable me to use 40 years of experience in education, and the second job to see if a pattern of discrimination did exist. The results of both applications were illuminating. A select board member wrote to me that the select board had preselected a candidate for the school committee position and the personnel director’s job was removed from the town’s list of positions available soon after I applied. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination agreed to file a complaint about the town’s denial of both jobs, but the hassle in going forward with those complaints would have been daunting.

Fast forward to shortly after Thanksgiving in 2022, when nine months of construction began, and is ongoing on the same property from which the original harassment took place in 2015, sometimes extending to both Saturdays and Sundays.

In July, the same town employee, acting now in a private role, who harassed me in 2015, continued his  harassment while I walked up the driveway on neighboring property. I needed to discuss the removal of stumps that were from borderline trees on both my property and the property described above with the head of the construction company. The town official, still acting in a private capacity, repeatedly said that he was the person to speak with regarding the construction company. I said I would continue walking up the driveway to speak to the construction manager. He called me a “near shit,” and likened me to a person who was involved in affordable housing in the town. He called the person on the affordable housing committee a “total shit.” The same town employee, still acting in a private role, then verbally attacked me for complaining to the neighbors, who own the land I stood on, about the construction company beginning work too early each day on their property. I never made such a complaint, but my wife complained to the two land owners that work went on on some Saturdays and Sundays during the past eight months. The sound of hundreds of huge dump trucks dumping their loads over more than eight months is awful. The sound of heavy machinery operating for hours each day is also grotesque! Property rights reign, as does wealth here!

I went up the driveway at the request of workers from a fence company erecting a fence on our property. The fence company needed to have the stumps removed before the fence construction continued. The construction company working on the neighbor’s land requested the stumps be removed earlier that day.

A police officer tells me that criticizing the official, working on the property noted above, is impossible because the official is a combat veteran. During my recent July interaction with that town official, he said that I was “known to the police.” When I leave a message with the current chief of police asking what “known to the police” means, I get no return call.

The harassment I describe above takes place at the same time as seven years of harassment I’ve experienced at a town facility I use. I complained about that treatment to a former police chief, who said that the manager of that facility was a good guy and that his behavior could not be questioned because he, the manager, was then being harassed by a select board member. The harassment toward me involves the facility’s manager going into the facility’s main building and remaining there until I leave. Recently that town employee hollered at me for not using the facility properly, but it’s difficult to use a facility when the person managing it goes indoors when I arrive there.

I went to the police station to make a complaint about a tire track that had been purposefully left on our property as an answer and penalty for my talk with the police chief a day earlier in front of our home. He had stopped to say hello to my wife and me. The chief was days away from leaving his job for allegedly becoming alienated with town officials, something that is not difficult to understand. Tire marks are only part of the continuing harassment here. Several years ago the edge of our property was littered with garbage for a time.

A select board member, whose campaign sign was on our property for months said: They (residents of Egremont) won’t come to their doors in answer to my suggestion that we go door-to-door canvassing to support that person’s candidacy. That select board member will now not answer my messages.

The neoliberalism of elected officials here is not reflective of the liberal voting results in state and national elections.

An acquaintance, a relative of one of the protesting students murdered by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, said residents of the town where this person lives, and I paraphrase here, view this relative as being different. Viewed as different would be a welcomed change from the awful treatment both myself and my wife have received here.

These incidents are the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the gross intolerance I’ve experienced here. It is too late to deal with any of these issues because to counter them, or work them out, would mean working with people who have some sense of fairness and compassion. Here, as in some places in the Berkshires, wealth rules. I thought that tolerance, and even acceptance, would be different from Rhode Island, but intolerance and even hate is clothed differently here, but it certainly does exist.

An acquaintance, who lives nearby, told of dogs wandering on his property that are of a breed that can be vicious. He said he was fearful that the dogs could attack a young relative who walked on that land. He said he was fearful of making a complaint about the dogs because the person who owned them was a former public official from Egremont.

Massachusetts is known as the bluest of blue states. This blueness, or liberalism, seems not to have helped me. The cliché to live and let live is made a mockery here.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).