Let’s Talk Race: City Councilor Penny Ricketts discusses confronting racism

  • At-Large City Councilor Penny Ricketts, pictured on Main Street in Greenfield, says that in her 20-plus years on the Human Rights Commission, she’s learned “the plight of what Black people go through will be more heard when it comes from an ally.” STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • At-Large City Councilor Penny Ricketts, pictured on Main Street in Greenfield, says it’s important to believe the things that people of color say they go through. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2020 10:40:38 AM

Editor’s Note: The death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis has spurred protests against racism and police brutality in the U.S. At demonstrations held locally, many people have spoken about their personal experiences with discrimination and the need for change. This week, the Greenfield Recorder has dedicated a series to sharing the stories of local residents and their experiences with racism. Look for additional stories later in the week.

GREENFIELD — In 2000, Penny Ricketts stood outside holding a sign as part of her campaign for a seat on the Greenfield School Committee.

“I was really new and at that time didn’t know about getting a group of people together to stand with you,” she said. “This truck drove by with a Confederate flag and one of them yelled (the N-word).”

Somebody nearby saw what happened and wrote down the license plate number, she recalled. The next day, she took the plate number to then-Selectboard member Peter Ruggeri and he called the police chief, who was then able to identify the two individuals involved.

“That was me just being naive back then … or I don’t know what to call it,” Ricketts said. “It was my introduction to politics.”

She was naive, she explained, to not even think that would occur.

“I could go out now and totally expect it, sadly enough,” she said.

And that, Ricketts said, is one of the reasons she didn’t feel safe attending a number of the recent rallies held in Greenfield or in the surrounding communities, or why she’s never held a Black Lives Matter sign or placed one in her yard.

She fears it would make her a target.

“I told my children I’m not marching from the common down to the Police Station so someone in some truck can accidentally run into me,” Ricketts said.

Assumptions

The issue of police brutality and the effects of systemic racism may have only recently re-entered the public sphere with the killing of George Floyd, and shortly before that Breonna Taylor, but it’s something that Ricketts says she confronts every day.

As a Black mother, she said, she doesn’t get to live her life by what’s happening in the news.

“We’re Black every day,” she said. “It’s not like I unzip, hang this skin up and hang it in the closet. … I don’t get to change who I am … and I don’t want to change anything about who I am.”

For as long as she’s lived in Franklin County, Ricketts said, people have assumed things about her, simply based on the color of her skin.

While grocery shopping one afternoon, for example, a cashier asked her for her Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card — assuming immediately that Ricketts wouldn’t be paying in cash.

“It was somebody young, which, to me, hurt even more,” she said. “Was that a training of the store for that to happen, or was that just their perception, that that was how I would pay?”

She eventually received an apology letter from the store over the interaction.

In another instance, she was driving to Dunkin’ Donuts late one night with a friend from out of town. She was pulled over by a state trooper who forced her friend, a Black man, out of the vehicle, frisked him and then checked the trunk for drugs.

“We were being pulled over, just because he was in the car,” she said.

Ricketts later called the Massachusetts State Police barracks, only to receive an apology letter in the mail letting her know the officer in question would receive diversity training.

She also received an apology letter from a hospital, after employees wrongly assumed Ricketts was on Medicaid, rather than asking her for her insurance information.

“It got to the point of, how many times do I have to get letters?” she said. “That’s the difficulty of living in a community like this. I know it’s the Happy Valley, and people think everything’s always rainbows or that (racism) is not in this town. But it’s going to happen; it’s going to happen everywhere and I have to stop with the whole, ‘It was the way they were brought up.’ We have to stop that excuse at some point.”

‘I’m still here’

In 2014, Ricketts became the first person of color elected to serve on City Council. Four years later, she was elected vice president.

As a member of the City Council and in her role on the Human Rights Commission, Ricketts has spoken out against discrimination, she’s spoken in support of same-sex marriage and she’s joined others on the common in a show of support for the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

She also came to the support of Pierce Brothers Coffee in 2016 after its owners appeared before City Council to tell members they’d experienced verbal harassment, including anti-Semitic remarks.

“That was when the racial emails started coming about me,” she said.

The emails, which she initially ignored, contained racist, digitally altered photos of Ricketts. The emails were turned over to the police to be investigated.

“I think it was the first time I was scared, for a little bit, in the beginning, because they couldn’t figure out where it started,” she said.

But the community came together for her, she said.

“I think it was probably meant to get me to step down … and then my voice wouldn’t be relevant anymore as far as empowering people of all persuasions to stay strong,” Ricketts said. “To this day, I’m still here.”

Strength in numbers

Although Ricketts doesn’t see an end to racial inequality happening any time soon, she sees it as a positive that more people are willing to stand up and stand with her.

“I think that’s important,” she said. “One of the reasons I didn’t want to speak at the rallies is because after 20-plus years on the Human Rights Commission, I’ve really learned … that the plight of what Black people go through will be more heard when it comes from an ally.”

But it’s also important, she said, to believe the things that people of color say they go through.

“I feel like the protests are a really good start, because even though this has happened numerous times over the last several years, people came together in a different way this time,” she said. “I truly believe that.”

Ricketts said she hopes that as people continue talking about effecting change, the message of unarmed Black people getting killed doesn’t get lost in the conversation about defunding the police.

“When those words came out, it changed the whole topic to the police officers,” she said. “Now, all we’re talking about is the good ones versus the bad ones.”

She isn’t advocating for a reduction in the police force; but rather, improved training, and removing and holding problem officers accountable.

“I just don’t want the point of unarmed Black people being killed to be lost throughout all of this,” Ricketts said.

She said the more youth gets involved, the more white people and people of all colors and sexual orientations get involved, the better.

“The more that we’re banding together, I think,” she said, “the stronger we’re becoming in the community as a whole.”

Reach Mary Byrne at 413-772-0261, ext. 263 or mbyrne@recorder.com.




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