“Black Lives Matter” more than a slogan

We must understand roots of discrimination against African Americans

A BLACK LIVES MATTER banner hangs on the front of Somerville City Hall. We put it up this week. We shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t have to put a banner up that says we are against police violence based on discrimination involving black people. It shouldn’t be newsworthy when a government body says that it believes that all of our institutions should treat all people the same, regardless of the color of their skin. These aren’t ideas that should have to be proclaimed.

But there is a painful reality we have to face. Institutional discrimination exists in the US law enforcement system. The statistics show it. The videos show it. And we must face it. So we put the banner up not to proclaim anything about Somerville or ourselves, but because we must stand in solidarity with the movement, acknowledge that painful reality, and work to change it.

It is difficult to admit that we are part of a system that needs to change. But it helps to understand that accepting that need is not an indictment of every person that is part of the system. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that our law enforcement system and our institutions were created by us, in a country with a troubling racial history from slavery to mass incarceration, which is now known as the new Jim Crow.

Over the decades, progress has been made, but well-documented structural racism persists in our private institutions, public institutions, and in the social make-up of our country. The difficulty in facing this truth may be one reason why we’ve seen the backlash to “black lives matter” take the form of the response “all lives matter,” which on the surface may seem well-meant but expresses an undercurrent of denial or, worse, continued racial division.

We know that “all lives matter,” but is it is black Americans who disproportionately are killed by those we entrust with upholding the law. It is black Americans who are disproportionately stopped, arrested, jailed and sentenced to longer prison terms.

We all know good police officers and law enforcement officials. I personally know so many, especially our chief of police, David Fallon, who advocates for fair, equal and community-focused policing through both his words and by his example, and who fully supported raising the banner on City Hall.

I believe that’s why, for some, “all lives matter” is pushback against what some deem to be an unfair painting of everyone who wears a badge with the same broad brush. But again, the statistics still make the truth clear: This is not about individual actors within the system—it is about a systemic problem that needs systemic solutions.

Somerville is instituting solutions by focusing on de-escalation training, true community policing, and planning for new training that will allow us to recognize internalized prejudices. We are committed to being self-critical and to listening to our community. The banner is a statement, but it is also a question. What must we do as a city to fix our part of the system? What must every city do?

To start, we must be able to look at ourselves and recognize the innate prejudices that we have learned, whether from co-workers, family, friends, or media representations. And we must acknowledge the existence of systematic police violence and structural racism and how we perpetuate it. We look forward to working closely with local Black Lives Matter leaders and to listening to our community to collaborate on meaningful municipal action.

This is a movement of awakening and clarity. It is asking us to be leaders within our families and our communities. It is asking us to remember our history and clearly see our present, and most urgently to shape a fair and equal future. This banner is an acknowledgement of our reality. It is our commitment to real change.

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This goal is no doubt difficult, but it is achievable through collective action. Eradicating racism from society may seem like an insurmountable task, but we need to start somewhere, and we must be able to work together to reshape our political and social institutions and cure them of this systemic problem. I believe we can do that. We cannot turn away. We must remind ourselves, and remind others. So we must say now and for as long as it takes: Black Lives Matter. And then, we must act.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville