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Somerville mayor confronts racism

‘Black Lives Matter’ banner is part of year-long conversation on bias

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Somerville mayor confronts racism
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone says the city-sponsored conversations Somerville residents have had on racial bias led to the hiring of an inclusion coordinator.

A “Black Lives Matter” banner has hung from Somerville’s City Hall building throughout the last 12 months, a provocative statement at a time when people around the country are debating the role of race in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

The controversy heated up two weeks ago when police officers from across the state gathered in front of the building to protest the sign, with a contingent displaying a blue and white “Cops’ Lives Matter” banner.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who had the banner installed, said he was heartened by the counter-demonstration of Somerville residents who outnumbered the officers.

Curtatone spoke with the Banner last week about his administration’s efforts to combat racial bias in policing and in all aspects of city government. The following interview has been edited for brevity.

What prompted your decision to hang the banner?

Joseph Curtatone: When we hung the banner — it’s almost a year to the date — we did so as a community trying to understand our role in a national conversation around whether or not institutional, systemic racism exists in our public agencies, in our public institutions. As the mayor of this city, the elected CEO, I felt it was my obligation to facilitate that conversation. And we started to do that a year ago. We’ve been having those conversations.

Black Americans, and mostly black young men being shot and killed by the very people sworn to protect them, had sparked that national conflict. As a community we’re trying to understand our role in that.

What form has that conversation taken?

JC: We had community leaders and activists and city staff facilitate focus groups and group meetings. We’re trying to share people’s experiences and stories in their lives, whether it was here in the city or somewhere else as members of different communities and different races, genders and religious affiliations, and how they experienced life in this city — their experiences of different city agencies and institutions.

We tried to garner from these conversations ideas on how we can become more engaged, more inclusive, more understanding, better listeners. Whether there were opportunities to institute new policies or programs around those conversations. We have 11 more conversations scheduled for the fall.

We wanted to start talking as a community. We knew no better way. I sit here in this office and you can ask me, “Joe, does discrimination or racial bias exist in Somerville?” I think it exists everywhere. It’s a very humbling conversation to have. But if we don’t look in the mirror and look each other in the face and have these conversations, how will we ever know? If any segment of any community feels disenfranchised, feels that the system doesn’t treat them fairly or equitably, is biased against them, we’re never going to be the exceptional place to live and work, to raise a family that we hope to be.

Have any policy changes come out of those conversations so far?

JC: One thing was the position of diversity and inclusion coordinator. We’ve never had a diversity plan. I think everyone would agree that you want the makeup of your institutional government to reflect the face of the community. We’ve never had a concerted effort around that. One of the things that came about as a result of the conversations was that.

We follow what is mandated and required under equal opportunity laws. We want to go above and beyond what we should be doing.

I know we’re a very diverse community in our population and schools. A third of our population is foreign-born. We speak over 50 languages. We’re many different colors and religions. The most important thing we can do is be vigilant that we’re always representative of the people who live here.

The conversation in Somerville has been about more than the actions of the police.

JC: Yes, but we have to call out what is happening. Nobody can sit this conversation out. Elected officials, communities, civic leaders, everyday folks – we can’t sit this conversation out. The facts speak for themselves that black people are arrested more, prosecuted more, incarcerated more and shot and killed more by those sworn to protect them. That is really what sparked this.

The greater, more complex issue is certainly around the inequity in different ethnic communities, communities with a strong minority population where they’re not able to achieve economic opportunity, housing opportunity, opportunities to grow with their families in healthy, productive neighborhoods. Certainly that’s a much more complex conversation.

But make no mistake — we are facing a challenge in how we police, how we train police, how we recruit, how we think about policing in the 21st century – it has to be examined. We have to call out the question: Does institutional, systemic racism and bias exist in those public institutions? We have to have that conversation. It is happening. It is real.

But we certainly need to understand the more complex systems that surround our communities.

From my beginning taking office here, our approach to policing has been one of my top priorities. We have literally turned upside down and rebuilt the police department around certain core principles, from reorganization and redeployment to understanding how we police. A police officer’s role is much more complex today. I have the greatest admiration for their role. We need them to be problem solvers. We need them to engage with everyone in the community to deal with issues before those issue become crimes. Our entire reform in the police department has been around adopting the most modern methods of community-based policing that President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Program has called out, such as de-escalation, demilitarization, understanding mental health issues and addiction as health problems, not as crimes.

We’ve come a long way in this city. That sign stands for something much more important than what the president of the police union was calling for. We believe we can praise what law enforcement is doing and say black lives matter, too.

Were you surprised by the negative response that the sign has generated?

JC: There’s been some reaction that hasn’t really been negative, but is meant to be constructive. Some people say “I believe that black lives matter, but can’t you say ‘all lives matter?’” I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that this speaks to a classic adaptive challenge for the country. How do we pluck people’s heart strings, their values to get to the edge of their seat to engage in this conversation. There’s no sitting this conversation out. So if it causes us to be uncomfortable in a way that’s constructive, if this brings people together for dialogue, and we can collectively come to solve this problem, fantastic. Has there been some negative response? Absolutely. I’m not surprised by it. I was more inspired, though, by the positive response. Especially the way the community rallied together in the three protests — two counter-protests by the community and one by the police union — how peaceful and constructive it was. By the end of the night, there was actually dialogue happening. It’s not an easy thing to do to look in the mirror and say, “Am I part of a system that is biased toward people?” It’s not an easy conversation, but if it gets people to the edge of their seat, that’s the conversation we need to have.

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