Last August, Mayor Curtatone hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner outside city hall at the request of a local BLM chapter, where it quietly flew for the better part of a year. That changed this summer, when a letter from the Somerville Police Employee’s Association called for the banner’s removal—and thrust Somerville into the national spotlight. Here’s a condensed version of the events that followed.
The Somerville Police Employee’s Association mails a letter addressed to Mayor Curtatone and signed by its president, Michael McGrath, which states that the association and its members are “deeply troubled” that the city continues to display a BLM banner. The letter requests the removal of the banner and asks that the mayor instead replace it with one that reads, “All Lives Matter.”
“My unwavering support for our police officers does not and cannot preempt our commitment to addressing systemic racism in our nation,” Curtatone says in a statement. “The City of Somerville stands against all violence and all injustice, which is why a Black Lives Matter banner hangs at city hall and why a banner in honor of the slain officers is hanging at Somerville Police Headquarters, where it would provide the most moral support to our officers—both on my order.”
In a press conference outside of City Hall, Somerville Police Chief David Fallon says he stands with Curtatone in support of the banner. While he doesn’t share his personal thoughts on either BLM or the banner itself, Fallon explains, “If the mayor feels that sign makes people in our community feel safer, feel more engaged with the Police Department, then I’m 100 percent behind it.”
The story makes it to the New York Times. In her article, “‘Black Lives Matter’ Banner on City Hall Divides a Boston Suburb,” reporter Katie Rogers notes the banner’s broader implications. “The tension in Somerville encapsulates a polarized, racially charged debate that has erupted nationally,” Rogers writes, “pinning the lives (and deaths) of police officers against those of black Americans, often with public officials caught in the middle.”
Curtatone again comes out in support of the BLM banner, saying that it is not competing with or opposing the “In Honor and Remembrance” banner at police HQ. “Those banners to do not represent competing thoughts,” Curtatone says in a statement. “Standing up for our minority populations and supporting the police officers who protect and serve our communities should go hand-in-hand.”
Bearing “Cops Lives Matter” signs and posters reading “Support Your Local Police,” roughly 50 police union members take to the steps of city hall in protest—though, for the most part, it appears that they didn’t come from Somerville. “Please note that during the Pro Law Enforcement Rally at city hall, Somerville Police Department representation is estimated at approximately 4 officers and 3 union leaders,” the city says in a statement. “Other participants appear to be from elsewhere, not SPD.” Meanwhile, in Union Square, BLM Cambridge hosts a rally called “Set the Record Straight” that, according to the Somerville Journal, draws over 100 residents and BLM supporters.
Mayor Curtatone speaks to the Bay State Banner about why he hung the banner in the first place and why it continues to be relevant. “We wanted to start talking as a community,” Mayor Curtatone says to the Banner. “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.”
More signage gets added to the mix when Somerville’s veterans hang a bright blue banner reading “All Lives Matter” outside of American Legion Post 19. “We seen what went on with city hall. We’re not happy about it,” post commander Dave Chamberlain told the Boston Herald. “We’re not knocking Black Lives Matter. We’re not knocking anybody … We don’t care about your color. We don’t care about where you come from—all lives matter.”
A Los Angeles man identifying himself as Nader M. Kashani mails a letter to city hall informing Curtatone that he and others are considering taking legal action should the BLM banner continue to fly. Kashani wrote that the mayor “willfully engaged in conduct that has been deemed dishonorable and antithetical to American values in the City of Somerville.” According to Kashani, the banner should not be allowed to fly on public property, and he says he’ll file a suit against the city if he doesn’t hear back by August 19.
Ward 4 School Committee member Andre Green and SPEA president McGrath sound off in the Boston Globe’s opinion section. “To be clear, the SPEA does not excuse the use of excessive force. We condemn it,” McGrath writes. But he says he fears the banner will incite violent attacks against police officers. Green provides this analogy for BLM’s stance: “If I complain to my doctor about pain in my shoulder and he spends the rest of my checkup looking at my knees because ‘all joints matter,’ you can be confident that I will be getting another doctor.”
Somerville is now home to four different banners: the BLM banner outside city hall, a new city hall addition that reads “United Against Violence and Racism,” the “All Lives Matter” banner outside of the American Legion hall and the “In Honor and Remembrance” banner at the police station. At press, no suit had been filed, and it seems unlikely that any of the four are coming down any time soon.