SOMERVILLE — More than 100 police officers from Massachusetts rallied Thursday night to oppose a Black Lives Matter banner hanging outside City Hall that the mayor vows he will not take down.
Standing beneath the banner, demonstrators from the Massachusetts Municipal Police Coalition, a group of Bay State unions that helped organize the event, unfurled a large blue sign that read “Cops Lives Matter.”
They also wore T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag and the slogan “Strength in Unity.”
Michael McGrath, president of the Somerville Police Employees Association, which also organized the protest, said his members share many core values with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Black Lives Matter slogan became a rallying cry in recent years to protest controversial killings of black men by police in Missouri, South Carolina, and elsewhere.
McGrath said local officers reject all forms of racism and excessive force, but that his union sought the removal of the Black Lives banner from City Hall after recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rogue, La.
The gunmen in those cases were black men.
“Because some elements identified with the Black Lives Matter movement have resorted to killing innocent police officers and putting the lives of citizens in jeopardy, the Massachusetts Municipal Police Coalition cannot stand for the continued display of that organization’s banner on a public building,” McGrath said to applause from demonstrators, most of whom hailed from departments outside Somerville.
The rally came one week after McGrath sent a letter to Mayor Joseph Curtatone to request the removal of the banner, which has stood since last August.
Curtatone refused and noted that a banner honoring the slain officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge hangs at police headquarters.
“We can fight to protect minorities and still praise the hard work of law enforcement officials,” Curtatone said during a briefing after the police rally.
He rejected the notion that the Black Lives banner should come down because the movement has been linked to violence elsewhere.
“Racism is racism, prejudice is prejudice,” he said. “The Black Lives Matter banner speaks to a particular, distinct problem in our society.”
During the earlier police rally, McGrath said many Somerville officers stayed away for fear of retaliation from City Hall.
But Police Chief David Fallon, who is at odds with McGrath over the banner, said during the mayor’s briefing that there was “not one ounce of truth” to the suggestion that officers could face a backlash.
Among the officers backing the union, McGrath said at the rally, is his romantic partner, a black Somerville detective who fears she will be demoted because of her support for the event, an assertion that Curtatone said was “absurd.”
While the mayor said officers support the city’s community policing model, which stresses de-escalating conflicts and sensitivity to addiction and mental health issues, McGrath said opposition to the Black Lives banner is widespread.
“I assure you, the rank and file, the working cops in Somerville, do not approve” of the sign, McGrath said during the rally.
In fact, McGrath said, he had proposed that Curtatone replace the Black Lives Matter banner with one that said All Lives Matter, as a compromise.
McGrath said the mayor responded that the banner would not come down under any circumstances, prompting a smattering of boos from demonstrators, some of whom held signs that said “Support Your Local Police,” as well as American flags.
As McGrath spoke, a Black Lives Matter rally was being held in the city’s Union Square section. A small contingent of those demonstrators made their way to the police rally as it concluded.
They stood quietly, holding signs with slogans including “I Agree with Joe,” in reference to the mayor, and “We Will Not Be Silent Until We End Police Violence.”
Demonstrator Roy Pardi, 61, of Somerville, held a Black Lives Matter sign and voiced support for the banner.
“But that doesn’t mean I don’t support the police,” he said.
Pardi lamented what he described as an attitude among police union officials that “because we support Black Lives Matter and civil rights, we’re against the police. And that’s just not the case.”
Several active duty officers who attended the rally declined to be interviewed, but David Lyons, a retired Somerville officer, said he came to support his colleagues and promote respect for all life,
“I believe all lives matter, and that’s what I believe [the city] should reflect,” Lyons said.
Curtatone, meanwhile, said the police force has made great strides and is far removed from an era when there was significant distrust of the department.
“We’re not going to turn back the clock on policing in Somerville,” he said.Globe correspondent Olivia Quintana contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.