Somerville city officials hung a large banner bearing the words “Black Lives Matter” on the front of City Hall on Wednesday morning in solidarity with the grassroots movement that has spread across the country following the deaths of unarmed black people during police confrontations.
Mayor Joe Curtatone said he worked with members of Black Lives Matter Cambridge , a local offshoot of the national organization, to create the banner and show support for their message.
“We see this as an important opportunity for an important national conversation” about race, Curtatone said. He said the move was “a very clear statement we are making to the community that we recognize that structural racism exists in our society; it exists in our public and private institutions.”
By hanging the banner, Curtatone said, he is calling on other cities to foster conversations about improving race relations.
The 4-foot-by-12-foot banner, a symbol of the beginning of a collaboration with the group, will stay up “as long as it has to” to drive the message home that Somerville is a city determined to strengthen trust between government agencies and people in the community and to treat everyone equally and fairly, Curtatone said.
“I have a responsibility as the chief executive of public institutions in this city and our municipality to lead that,” Curtatone said. “If any one group feels that our public institutions are not treating them fairly, or our policies drive a certain structural racial overtone, I have a responsibility to lead that change.”
When asked if he thinks racism is a problem in Somerville, he said, “Racism exists everywhere.”
“In our public institutions, we can remove it,” he said.
Stephanie Guirand, lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Cambridge, said the group was honored that Curtatone agreed to hang the banner and work with them closely. “He said all the things we wanted to hear about being on the right side of history,” she said.
Curtatone said the partnership is not meant to criticize the work of the Somerville Police Department, which he referred to as a model for community-based policing efforts. He said it was actually a “statement of faith” in the department.
“They’re fantastic,” he said, adding that the police chief supports the cause. “This is not just about law enforcement. The goal is to address racism in all of our other public and private institutions. We are in this as a whole city, not with just a focus on police.”
Junior Buissereth, a Somerville business owner who is originally from Haiti, stopped to look at the banner as he left City Hall.
“It’s a way to see what is going on between police and the black community,” he said, applauding the mayor on his bridge-building efforts. “It’s great to put something up that people can see [that says] whatever your color, all lives matter.”
Jess Holl, a Somerville resident, walked by and craned her neck to observe the message. “I think it’s powerful knowing we have a mayor who is willing to take a stand on something so important,” she said.
Renee Martins pulled up to mail a letter outside the municipal building. She said she didn’t know about the Black Lives Matter movement, but said the banner looked great. “But all lives matter,” she said.
Curtatone came out in support of the Black Lives Matter Boston movement in January, just days after protesters formed human barricades on Interstate 93 . The mayor said the activists should have been celebrated for their efforts — not chided by the public for causing traffic delays.
Curtatone also recently said that he hopes to equip Somerville officers with body cameras within the next year.
In the days following the draping of the banner at City Hall, Curtatone said, there will be educational components to the partnership that will involve both city departments and members of Black Lives Matter Cambridge.
The work will include intensive anti-racism training for the Police Department and other front line staff who engage with constituents regularly. Black Lives Matter Cambridge is developing plans for further educational efforts.
“The words are empty if we just hang a sign,” Curtatone said. “We have one goal in our community: to make it an exceptional place to live, to work, to play — for everyone.”