BROOKLINE — A town official pressed Brookline’s diversity commission Wednesday to retract a statement accusing the Board of Selectmen of allowing “a culture of institutional racism” through its past hiring practices.
But the Commission for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations refused to back down after an emotional debate with Selectman Bernard Greene, who called the statement an “embarrassment” that hurt the town’s reputation.
The statement was read by commission chair Alex Coleman during a Jan. 5 selectmen’s meeting after two black police officers described racist incidents within the department and said they feared for their safety. The officers, Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, are off the job without pay.
Only two department heads during Brookline’s history have been people of color, according to the commission, and in recent years the town allowed a firefighter who used a racial slur to be promoted to a supervisory position. The statement called on selectmen to “stamp out this culture” without delay.
“There is a history in this town of not taking action on these matters in a timely manner,” the statement said. “You must not repeat this history.”
The diversity commission has been under pressure from Greene and others to withdraw the statement. On Wednesday night, the panel discussed adding a clarification that what members wrote was an opinion, and not a finding of fact.
But the commission unanimously voted to table the matter following the heated back-and-forth with Greene.
“If you want black people to work in our town, this is not how you do it,” said Greene, the selectmen’s liaison to the commission.
Greene said that certain words, such as racism and sexism, are very emotional and inflame the situation. “As soon as you say the word, people follow,” he said.
“You haven’t done any investigating, any fact-finding,” he told the panel. “What is the basis of your statement?”
Commission member Anthony Naro said it was residents’ comments during the Jan. 5 selectmen’s meeting about Brookline police behavior that shed a public light on racism in town. “My family and I were flabbergasted by what we heard,” he said.
Coleman didn’t read the commission’s statement until near the end of the selectmen’s comment period, Naro said.
“By that time, the town’s reputation was already in disrepair,” he said. “If half of what those people said is true, it’s very disturbing.”
Commission member Malcolm Cawthorne, who grew up in town, told Greene to look at the town’s history.
“As a black man, I could spew ad nauseam about being profiled,” he said. “This is about a history that is not being acknowledged, and if that is hurting the Board of Selectmen, so be it.”
Neil Wishinsky, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said Thursday that his board has not taken an official position on the diversity commission’s statement.
“But I will tell you that I concur with Bernard’s assessment,” Wishinsky said. “I do think that a town board, when they make such a broad statement, should undertake a necessary process. And I don’t think they did that.”
Commission members said Wednesday they were feeling pressure from town officials to retract or amend their statement after it was referenced in a class-action lawsuit filed against the town by attorney Brooks Ames on behalf of a group of minority town employees and others who they say have been damaged by the town’s “longstanding and well-established history” of racism.
Pilot and Zerai-Misgun had joined the suit, but they and Ames parted ways last week, and the officers are now being represented by attorneys from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and are no longer involved in the civil suit.
Ten days ago, members of the commission received a Freedom of Information Act request from town counsel Joslin Ham Murphy asking for copies of all documents “created or received” pertaining to their work on the commission, including hard copies of e-mail correspondence.
The request seeks any correspondence between members of the commission and Ames, his wife, Mariela Ames, Pilot, Zerai-Misgun, and others involved in the suit.
“Absolutely, I feel pressure,” Coleman said. “I feel what town counsel did was ill-advised, unnecessary, divisive, and inappropriate.”
Commission member Sandy Batchelder also acknowledged feeling pressure, but said he was embarrassed that the statement “was dumped into a lawsuit.”
Marty Rosenthal, a Town Meeting member and former selectman, tried to get support for a slightly modified version. The changes would have allowed the members to stand by what they wrote, while clarifying that it was an opinion of those in attendance when the statement was written, and not a result of an in-depth investigation by the board.
“They are not factual findings, but they are being used that way,” he said.
As a member of the committee that helped established the commission, Rosenthal said afterward he is worried that the commission will be marginalized.
“I think what’s at stake here is the credibility of this commission and the role they play,” he said.