Summer heats up for Black Lives Matter with police proposals, Somerville rallies
Incidents of violence loosely related to the Black Lives Matter movement – itself begun within the past few years after repeated examples of violence against people of color – are raising tensions and complicating peace efforts in Cambridge and Somerville. Last week, Cambridge members addressed the jarring presence of an armored vehicle at a Central Square rally and traveled into Somerville to match a police rally of opposition to a Black Lives Matter banner at its city hall.
Today, members expect to be at Cambridge’s sole summer City Council meeting to object to a proposal for more police presence in public housing. The meeting is to be held at 5:30 p.m. at the Dr. Henrietta S. Attles Meeting Room at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 459 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge.
The proposal by Mayor E. Denise Simmons says it is in response to recent incidents near Central Square and the Area IV/Port neighborhoods and spikes in violence common to Cambridge and other cities during hotter months, but Black Lives Matter members say it risks criminalizing residents in Housing Authority units.
“We’re against it 100 percent,” said Stephanie Guirand, a Black Lives Matter spokeswoman. “It doesn’t make anyone feel more safe – it actually gives the false notion the community is getting less safe – and it criminalizes residents.” She gave the example of residents being busted for marijuana use and losing their housing as a result, and said there has been discussion within the group about helping legalize marijuana, which would eliminate the drug as a pretext for putting citizens into the criminal justice system.
The armored vehicle brought to a July 10 Black Lives Matter gathering in Central Square was also described as a way to make people feel safe by police speaking at a Wednesday meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee. The July 10 gathering came only days after five police officers died in an attack in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter gathering, but at the hands of a lone man on a mission to kill who was unrelated to the group.
“It was meant to assure people that police were prepared, so people could feel safe if there was a situation like Dallas,” said Guirand, recounting testimony from acting police commissioner Christopher J. Burke and a deputy superintendent, Christine Elow. “It had the opposite effect, obviously.”
Vice mayor Marc McGovern, who led the Wednesday meeting with councillor Craig Kelley, said he didn’t feel “we ever got a clear answer” on why the BearCat armored vehicle was parked near the Black Lives Matter event, but saw it as symbolic of how different groups would perceive an action differently. While he might have walked past it without thinking twice, “people with a different experience will see it as a tank and be intimidated,” McGovern said. “It’s a symbol of our disconnect.”
Somerville managed to have an even bigger symbol of disconnect with a Black Lives Matter banner that has been hanging on its city hall for a year – suddenly newly politicized by a July 19 letter from Michael McGrath, president of the Somerville Police Employees Union to his mayor, Joseph A. Curtatone, saying that recent killings of police changed the meaning of the sign and made it vital that it be taken down. He made the point again to a crowd Thursday at the city hall, where there were also local firefighters, members of the Massachusetts Municipal Police Coalition and Verizon workers standing in support.
“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,” said McGrath, claiming support of at least 1,500 city police officers.
The crowd, though full of reporters representing media from NECN (which had a helicopter circling overhead getting aerial footage) to The New York Times, seemed light on local police offers, and declining to say how many were present was a rare dodge from McGrath in a question-and-answer period that followed. “I haven’t counted. Somerville is well-represented,” he said, ignoring a media request for a Somerville officers to speak out from the crowd.
Somerville officers – who will soon be entering contract negotiations with the city – are afraid of speaking out, McGrath said. His final statement, and a topic on which he took no questions, was to identify his own romantic partner of 15 years among the fearful Somerville law enforcement officers. He said she was a black police detective who supported his letter and the protest he organized.
Asked if he’d discussed his concerns with Black Lives Matter, McGrath gave conflicting answers. While he hadn’t spoken to them ahead of the rally, he told the crowds Thursday that “We were actually planning on them being here. The leadership were going to seek out their leadership and speak to them and see if they would be open to dialogue.” He added to the confusion with an answer to another question, saying “We would consider meeting with them” – despite having just said union leadership were going to seek them out.
Variations on a slogan
Behind him were protesters holding a large “Cops lives matter” sign, and there were “Blue lives matter” signs in the crowd, as well as people invoking the phrase “All lives matter.” McGrath invoked that phrase as well, telling his audience that “Our message is simply that life matters, and we don’t want to exclude any population” – all tropes among conservatives and others resistant to the point of the Black Lives Matter movement and its slogan, which arose as a response to increasingly publicized examples of people of color being killed by police under questionable circumstances, out of proportion to the crimes of which they were accused.
“When we say Black Lives Matter, we’re not saying others lives don’t,” said Didi Delgado, another spokeswoman for Black Lives Matter Cambridge, at a group rally taking place in Somerville’s Union Square at around the same time as the law enforcement union’s rally. With speeches by Black Lives Matter members, Somerville alderman Matthew McLaughlin and state representative candidate Mike Connolly, it drew at least twice as many people as the rally at city hall rally, where dozens of supporters were bulked up by reporters and camera operators.
Like questions about how much support McGrath’s letter has among rank-and-file Somerville police, some wondered about a Cambridge group holding an event in Somerville, which has no Black Lives Matter chapter of its own. Guirand acknowledged the tension, but noted that the group has been in long-term discussions with Curtatone, has a list of some 150 Somerville supporters and is moving toward dedicating one of its members to work just in Somerville, where about 7 percent of the population is black; in Cambridge, that figure is about 12 percent.
Chant draws attention
Toward the end of the city hall rally, a group allied with Black Lives Matter, Teen Empowerment, filtered in for a dialogue, and a few people from the Union Square rally also arrived – along with reports that the Union Square rally had included violent chants.
Tom Ross, president of the Somerville Firefighters union Local 76, said he agreed that the Black Lives Matter banner at city hall should come down, because “I think it’s encouraging violence,” and he said he was disconcerted to hear that there were “very violent chants” being recited by people at the Union Square rally.
Footage made available by Somerville Community Access Television producer Yvette Wilks, who filmed at the rally, revealed the chant as: “Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” Wilks described the chant as coming in reaction to news from Baltimore, where each of the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, 25, had been found not guilty, making it specifically a message about criminal convictions and questions about whether the justice system works the same way for everyone.
National Black Lives Matter leaders required a group chant at a rally, Guirand said. But the specificity of the chant didn’t necessarilyy apply to Cambridge and Somerville. “In general, we’re on the same page as police commissioner Burke,” Guirand said. “We’ve said over and over that we don’t think Cambridge suffers from the same brand of systemic violence that some of these other cities suffer from, police in Cambridge are not killing people, and we should all be very grateful for that.”
— Cambridge Police👮🏽 (@CambridgePolice) August 1, 2016
The weekend saw three “Walk On and Speak Up” evening marches on successive days from Harvard Square to Kendall Square, put together by Black Lives Matter and the Chocolate Project. Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police, said police worked closely with the groups in planning the events, which took place without incident. “Officers received numerous thank yous from the organizers and participants, and it was a terrific response to Wednesday’s discussions,” Warnick said.
Still, Guirand said, people have noted an increase in police presence at peaceful gatherings, and “we think it’s important that we have less of a police presence at community rallies, protests and events.”