By Gene Brune
What have we learned listening and watching all that has happened and continuing today regarding the sad ending of the life of George Floyd? When I first watched on television the police officer holding down Floyd with his knee putting pressure on Floyd’s neck and listening to Floyd begging for him to stop as he couldn’t breathe, I immediately felt disgust for the police officer. I thought, my God is he trying to kill this man? Why can’t he move his knee? And if he does need be to be held down, why can’t he place his knee on his back instead? Better yet, there were three other police officers with him, why not just stand over him while waiting for the patrol wagon? The actions of this police officer caused the creation of protest throughout the country as well as other countries, causing millions of dollars in damage and injuries. What did each of you really see when we watched all the protests? Did you only see thugs burning police cars, burning stores and buildings, louting liquid stores, food stores, clothing stores, jewelry stores, pot stores, setting fires and injuring many police officers, who may have been innocent of never crossing the line to harm a black person, but just being there doing their job as a police officer. What went through our minds as we witnessed what was happening with all this violence being caused? Wondering, is this truly a protest against the system that allowed for our police to cause the death of black citizens like George Floyd? Or, for many, is this a great time to join the protesters so they can lout and steal TV”s, computers, clothes, booze, drugs, money, etc., etc., etc.? My feelings tell me that the protesters certainly did not invite or want all that damage, as in, the fires, the violence, and certainly not all that looting. They just wanted to show that they should be treated equally just as their white Americans are treated, nothing more, nothing less. That is not hard to understand, that they wanted the same advantages for their children, and for themselves, to be treated as fairly as others. Isn’t that what we all want for our self and for our family?
Many of us continue to miss the big picture, and that is the injustice to the black people in our great country. I remember, ever since I was old enough to realize, that although it was not happening so much in Somerville, and if it was, at times I didn’t see it, I began to learn that it was prevalent in many southern states.
We can create all the rules, regulations, boards, training programs, and whatever else, but we all know that young children are not born to hate, they certainly are not born to hate people of a different color, a different religion, or a different nationality. It all starts in the home; it is what we want our children to learn. After all, growing up, how many times did we try to emulate our parents in many ways by our actions and deeds?
As it has been said so many times racial prejudice starts with the parents in what they say in their homes and with their actions towards other races, most importantly, what they teach their children.
I can tell you that in my house, growing up, my father did not tolerate any kind of prejudice towards any nationality, race, or religion.
I remember that when my brother returned from overseas at the end of WW2, he called my father from Virginia and asked my father how he felt about him marrying a girl that he was dating while stationed in Virginia before going overseas. The girl was not Italian, which my brother didn’t think was important, but my brother was worried because she was not catholic. My father answered him by saying, “Jimmy the only thing important to me is that she is a good person, because as far as I am concerned that is the only important thing.” Now if the world were full of people like my father, there probably would not be any protest marches.
I guess I learned from my father for I can still remember when I joined the Army and when I was in Fort Polk Louisiana and on a one day pass I went downtown with a couple of my friends. While walking through the main square I saw this older black lady pushing a baby carriage with another child walking beside her. The sidewalk, being not wide, when we approached each other, I jumped off the curb and allowed for them to pass by. After they passed some white guys said to me, “Hey soldier we don’t jump off the sidewalk to let blacks pass, they jump off for us.” I immediately said, well where I come from, we respect others no matter what color. My buddies laughed and said to me, “Hey squirt watch what you say your half the size of them.”
Being a former Mayor I understand the many problems in running a city, the things you can change and others you cannot totally change due to civil service and unions. I feel that one of the only ways that we can rid a department of a police officer that shows prejudice, or racism in his or her actions, or determined that there everyday actions prove that they are not fit to be a police officer, and could at some time become a major problem such as we are witnessing now, is to be able to fire that person for just cause and have the decision upheld without having interference from the police union or civil service. So many times, suspensions are overturn by civil service or pressure from unions.
A Mayor or any appointing authority must be diligent in hiring people that are not only qualified but what is especially important is that they also have the right attitude to work in the position being hired for. I am not talking just about the police department but for any department, racism I know does not exist just in police departments.
Somerville is fortunate to have so many great police officers. I believe that I appointed about 65 police officers during my ten years in office as Mayor, many of them are retired or soon to retire. When I can see some of them, they first thank me for giving them the opportunity, and I also thank them for their service to our city. A few that stick in my mind were Patrolmen Joseph Votour, an excellent, honest person, and loaded with integrity, that left the department due to having to shoot a prisoner when being attack with a knife. Also, another great hire was Patrolmen Louie Remigio, who was killed riding his motorcycle. The third was Sgt. John Jones, John was one of my minority hires and up until he died with cancer was without a doubt one of the finest human beings that I have ever met. I was impressed with him from the first day that I interviewed him, and he never disappointed me. After he died, I received a beautiful letter from his wife telling me how John felt about me and how he enjoyed working in our police department. I could go on and on and name so many others that retired or are still working. I guess what I want to instill in you reading this is that don’t let the bad police officers spoil your thoughts about the other 95% of the good ones that risk their lives every time they go on duty. Many of them did not have a bit of racism in them but are now, or have been, injured during the so called, “peaceful demonstration.”
Peaceful demonstration for any cause is great. We had a few in the late 1960’s early 1970’s in Somerville because we were fed up with corruption in our city, we wanted transparency in our government, and at the end we won. If we are to have peaceful demonstrations those in charge should be sure that they remain peaceful or they will lose the message that they are trying to relate to begin with. Yes, absolutely they should not tolerate racism, but they should also not tolerate setting police cars on fire, throwing rocks at police officers, setting fires to property, and looting stores of businesses that the owners are fighting to hold on to due to being close with this virus nightmare. Is that not also an injustice on them?
I think that it is going to take a combination of the religious community, members of the black and white community, members of the law enforcement, police unions, civil service, elected officials and other agencies, whatever it takes and whatever tools appointing authorities need to rid racism in police departments throughout the country.
I was thinking as I am writing this about all the wonderful memories and it brought back some of my best memories with some of the most wonderful people of color that I had the pleasure of working with or friendly with during my political career. Many have died and some are still living and remain my friends. Dr David Jones, the principal of the Western Jr. High School, and his family, are one of them. Anne Johnson, Annie was highly active in Somerville, Chairman of the Bd. Of Health, President of the Somerville- Cambridge ELDER services and Co-Founder of Project Soup. I am still friends with Annie’s daughter Pearl Morrison, past Principal of the West Somerville Neighborhood School. Hazel Hughes, extremely active in several community and civic groups, I loved Hazel, she always made me laugh, her and Annie and my mother were great telephone friends. I was extremely proud when the Somerville Community Corporation presented me with the Hazel Hughes Award in 1989. Also, so many more that I became friendly with and who always supported me in my political career. I had so many great conversations with each of them on how we could make the black community a strong part of the fabric of our city and they always kept me informed if things were not right. I would like to dedicate this article to them. They, and the entire black community, were and still are truly a part of the Spirit of Somerville.
(Gene Brune was the former mayor of Somerville for 10 years and 24 years as the Register of Deeds.)