SOMERVILLE (CBS/AP) — Police officers in Massachusetts are upset the mayor of this largely white, historically working class Boston suburb is refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter banner that has hung over City Hall for nearly a year.
The Somerville Police Employees Association and other police unions peacefully rallied Thursday evening outside Somerville City Hall to demand that Mayor Joseph Curtatone remove the sign.
The police union’s president, Michael McGrath, says his officers support the “core goal” of the Black Lives Matter movement, but they believe the current banner sends an “exclusionary message” and is disrespectful to officers.
“We do not oppose the nucleus of the Black Lives Matter movement or some of its ideology,” McGrath said at the rally. “In fact, our core values are similar: equality of everyone regardless of race.”
McGrath said “it is irresponsible of the city to publicly declare support for the lives of one sector of our population to the exclusion of others.”
The sign is getting mixed reaction in the city.
“All lives can’t matter until black lives matter,” said Stephanie Santiago a Somerville resident who supports the sign.
“That is saying one group is better than everyone else that they matter and no one else does,” said Mary Ann a resident against the sign.
Mayor Curtatone says the banner is all about creating dialogue. “If we refuse to engage in the conversation we will never be a unified and civil society,” Curtatone said.
Curtatone, a white Democrat who is the 50-year-old son of Italian immigrants and the mayor since 2004, has argued that standing up for black and minority residents and supporting police officers aren’t “competing interests.” He noted the city has also hung a banner over police headquarters honoring the officers slain in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Both of those banners are hanging for the same reason: Too many people have died in a cycle of violence that needs to be stopped,” he said in a statement. “It is a violence that tests us in every community, demanding we either come together or break apart.”
Curtatone hung the 4-foot-by-12-foot banner over City Hall’s main entrance in August 2015 at the request of a local Black Lives Matter chapter. At the time, he said it was meant to recognize that “structural racism” exists in society and stressed it was not a criticism of his police department
“That banner and the fact that the community put up that banner more than a year ago, almost a year ago speaks to our values and we’re trying to understand and set a model for the rest of the nation how we come together in dialogue to eradicate racism and it exists even if it’s not intended in how we implement our policies, beliefs, and programs,” Curtatone said Thursday.
Curtatone said he’ll also seek to equip officers with body cameras, something some civil rights activists have called for in the wake of the police-involved killings. He also pledged to push the police department and other city agencies to conduct anti-racism training programs for their employees.
The mayor had been supportive of other actions by Black Lives Matter activists, including a January 2015 protest in which a number of them chained themselves to concrete barrels on the main highway leading into Boston from Somerville, snarling morning rush hour traffic.
Last week, the city police union called on the mayor to replace the banner with one that states “All Lives Matter,” a phrase that some civil rights activists complain diminishes their concerns about the killings of black men and boys at the hands of police in recent years.
In response, Somerville Police Chief David Fallon chided the union for getting involved in the debate. He said he supports keeping the banner over City Hall.
Somerville is a city of over 80,000 residents that borders Boston and Cambridge and home to most of Tufts University’s campus. It is about 74 percent white, 11 percent Latino, 9 percent Asian and 7 percent black, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)