A city councilor in North Adams is facing a backlash from some residents and elected officials in the Berkshire county community after he used his platform on a local access television program to understate the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and call the Black Lives Matter movement a terrorist group.
The comments by Councillor Robert R. Moulton, Jr., made while co-hosting his Northern Berkshire Community Television show “Let’s Talk About It,” touched off fiery responses from other council members and the city’s mayor this week.
When the other co-host brought up Black Lives Matter signs and how he incorrectly believes the group uses donations, Moulton said he not only disagrees with the movement but also doesn’t think “people know what it is.”
“It seems like that’s this month’s flavor. It’s a terrorist organization. They want to get rid of the ‘family,' as it is,” he said, later adding that supporters want to take down statues and put “Chef Boyardee up.”
After saying he still hasn’t had the term “systemic racism” explained to him, Moulton then said Black Lives Matter “hijacked the word racism,” and that he doesn’t believe “any of this is racism.”
“Prejudice, it is, it is,” he said on the program. “But they kind of use that word racism — you know, that would be like the Vegetable Growers of America saying, ‘Everybody has got to like all the vegetables.' ‘Well I don’t like asparagus.’ ‘Well you gotta like it.‘ ”
The hour-long conversation later shifted to the coronavirus pandemic, and criticism of how Governor Charlie Baker has handled the response to the virus.
“How can I relate and tell people how minuscule this pandemic is?” Moulton asked his co-host, using a metaphor about a few grains of sugar in a 5-pound bag to try and make a point.
Moulton also said shutting down the country was “a huge, huge, huge mistake.”
“I think people should quarantine, people should stay safe, but I just figure what’s being done to this economy is terrible,” he said. “What’s being done in the world is terrible.”
As of Wednesday, the pandemic had claimed the lives of more than 142,000 people across the country, according to Johns Hopkins University. Massachusetts has seen 107,413 confirmed cases and 8,249 deaths among confirmed cases.
Moulton, who also serves on the school committee in North Adams, did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.
His stance on the television program elicited a biting response from City Council Vice President Jason M. LaForest, who defended the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’s seen first-hand the devastating toll COVID-19 has taken on people’s lives.
“I am deeply disappointed to learn that a fellow city councilor ... shared these views on his local public access television show,” LaForest wrote on Facebook Wednesday.
LaForest, a nurse, said he had lost 24 patients to COVID-19 and also, “We lost an immediate family member to the virus — it is real.”
He also said “racism is real.”
“There is no room for uninformed and hate-filled rhetoric in our society and public discourse. In 2020, we continue to shout BLACK LIVES MATTER!‘” he wrote.
In a follow-up interview Thursday, LaForest told the Globe that North Adams residents had expressed concern about Moulton’s role as a School Committee member, as students across the state prepare to return to the classroom amid the pandemic.
“Given that we have to deal with COVID-19, and given that we do have students of color and students of other marginalized demographics in our school system,” he said.
Speaking out in a statement on Facebook, another city councilor, Benjamin Lamb, said North Adams has both a “responsibility to believe in science” to keep people safe, and “a duty to support and raise up the voices of those who are the most at risk; those who have faced systemic racism and fear for their lives.”
“COVID-19 is REAL. Racism is REAL. Black Lives Matter,” he wrote.
City Councilor Jess Sweeney “reached out to Councilor Moulton to discuss the differences of our beliefs,” according to a Thursday Facebook post.
“I hope to get a response soon,” Sweeney wrote, before encouraging others to reach out to him, as well.
North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard also touched on Moulton’s comments in an interview with WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
“There have been a number of marches and standouts in North Adams, and there were 100 plus people at the first one on City Hall lawn, and I think that’s what speaks to community sentiment in North Adams more than a cable access program,” Bernard said, referencing some residents’ support for Black Lives Matter.
Bernard told the Globe he ran against Moulton for mayor in 2017. He said the opinions Moulton expressed on his program “are consistent with the views on race and public health that he expressed during that campaign.”
However, Bernard said, Moulton “is within his rights to express his opinion publicly, but I hope he also takes the time to listen to the people who are responding to his comments, especially those who found them hurtful and offensive.”
On Twitter Wednesday night — without directly mentioning Moulton’s television program — Bernard shared a picture of a Black Lives Matter billboard that’s on display in the community.
“Important to keep saying this. Important to have such a public and visible expression in the City of North Adams of this powerful and necessary truth," he wrote.
Later, he tweeted a thread about the community’s response to the pandemic. He ended the series of tweets with a picture of himself wearing a black and white face-covering bearing the images of frogs, a gift he said he received from his sister.
“And, as always,” Bernard wrote, “#WearAMask!”