Selectmen and Brookline's attorney are pushing back against a conclusion by that town's Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations Commission that Brookline is plagued by a “culture of institutional racism.” Eleven members of the 12-member commission signed off on a recent statement on institutional racism in the Brookline work force. Chairman Alex Coleman read the group's conclusions at a recent public hearing held by the Board of Selectmen.At that meeting on January 5, dozens of Brookline residents described example after example of racial harassment and disparities in hiring and firing by the town. The commission's report reflected many of the complaints.
This is not going over well with Brookline's five selectmen. Chairman Bernard Greene describes the report as a “pathetic process that resulted in the statement.” Greene, an African American, was joined in his objection by other selectmen and by Brookline town counsel Joslin Murphy. According to an email message obtained by the Brookline Beacon, Murphy lamented that the Diversity Commission's statement was “causing damage to the town’s reputation as a community and employer.” Murphy herself is named in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of eight Brookline employees and residents, with her hiring cited as an example of nepotism. According to the lawsuit "the town of Brookline appointed a white woman with multiple relationships within the workforce, defendant Joslin Murphy, as the town’s chief legal counsel."
The original federal complaint against Brookline was filed in December by a black firefighter, Gerald Alston, who accused the town of violating the civil rights of black and Hispanic employees and residents. There are now seven more plaintiffs, including veteran police officer Prentice Pilot and officer Estifanos Zerai-Misgun. Their high-profile dispute with the department has focused widespread media attention on Brookline.
On the night of January 26, while town selectmen went about their business in a near empty room on the sixth floor, dozens crowded the entrance to Brookline Town Hall to hear details of the amended civil rights lawsuit.
Attorney Brookes Ames told the crowd that Brookline has an “institutionalized racism problem.”
“What we’ve learned as we’ve talked to people, as we’ve met people, as we’ve listened to people, is that Gerald Alston is not a singular case," Ames said. "We learned about Prentice Pilot and we learned about Estifanos Zerai-Misgun: black police officers who do not feel safe in the Brookline police department because of racial slurs, because of racial harassment.”
Ames said instead of punishing white officers whom the black officers accused of hurling explicit racist remarks directly at them, the police department and selectmen—Brookline’s highest government officials—allowed the offending officers to stay on the job. Many in the multiracial crowd at Brookline Town Hall told their own stories of alleged racism—of both a systemic and individual nature—in Brookline.
“I care passionately about issues of equity and it breaks my heart to know what’s happening in Brookline," said resident Ginger Melton, who was there with her son. "I worry for my children and I see what my husband goes through. I see how people treat me when I walk through town by myself as a white woman versus how people look at my family when my African-American husband and kids walk through. And I’m worried for their safety.”
The five selectmen have been reluctant to talk about this issue, but released statements clarifying their positions. Chairman Neil Wishinsky told WGBH News that since he is named in the lawsuit he has been advised by counsel not to comment. In an email exchange he suggested speaking with Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary. “I think he is in the best position to provide the town's view," wrote Wishinsky.
O'Leary said there’s a perception by some that people of color are singled out both inside the department and outside on the streets. But while he agrees that Brookline has problems he doesn’t think things are as bad as people think.
“I think the steps that we’ve taken, if people take the time to look at our website and ask questions about us, then they can make their own minds up, but instead of having some people saying innuendos and say, ‘A friend of mine and a friend of mine and a friend of mine, they got stopped'— well, when did they get stopped?" O'Leary said. "That’s one thing that I’ve been saying to our supervisors here: That if somebody makes that statement, ask them when.”
O’Leary has offered to hire “an outsider” to mediate the standoff between the town’s black policemen and his department, but officer Pilot replied you cannot mediate “institutionalized racism.”
The recent rally at Town Hall concluded with Ames demanding that the selectmen "live up to their stated policy of zero tolerance for racism.”
“What we’re asking for is for the town to stop its policy of retaliation, to stop its policy of discrimination," Ames said. "We’re also asking for remedies. We’re asking that a reparations package be established, so that when people come forward, as they will, that they will get a remedy.”
Ames says the next step is a hearing in U.S. Federal Court on the civil rights lawsuit. That hearing is expected to take place sometime this winter.