A group of Cambridge officials is calling to have the Commonwealth’s flag removed from the City Council chamber, citing what the lawmakers consider offensive symbolism against Massachusetts’s indigenous people enshrined in the state seal.
The council is slated to consider a policy order at Monday’s meeting that directs staffers to find a new home for the banner in City Hall where it can still be publicly displayed in accordance with state law, but not inside the Sullivan Chamber.
The order’s co-sponsors told Boston.com Friday that they feel the city is on firm legal ground in their request after they consulted with the city solicitor on whether officials could, legally, make the location change.
“We’re going to be respectful of the laws, but at least it’s not going to be in the people’s chamber where people who find it offensive are going to have to sit there and stare at it in a six-hour council meeting,” Mayor Marc McGovern said in an interview.
The move would be a needed step in acknowledging the history of genocide and oppression suffered by native peoples — a painful past that lives on on flagpoles across the state, they say.
At the center of the flag stands Wampanoag Chief Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit, holding a bow. Seen above him is an arm with a sword belonging to Myles Standish, a Mayflower passenger who was the first commander of the Plymouth Colony and led attacks against local tribes.
The violence perpetrated by European settlers is abundant in more ways than one, officials say. A Latin phrase in the seal reads: “Ense Petit Placidam, Sub Libertate Quietem,” usually translated as “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
“As a society, we’re still oppressing native people and the flag is just a constant reminder of oppression for them,” Councilor Quinton Zondervan, also a policy order co-sponsor, said Friday. “Moving it around City Hall isn’t going to remove that but at least it’s recognition that it is still going on, that the issue is not resolved, and that we still have more work to do in including everyone.”
In May, the council voiced unanimous support for a proposed state resolution that would create a special commission to study Massachusetts’s official seal and motto and offer recommendations for a new design, if passed.
Councilors heard emotional testimony at that hearing, including from members of the Native American community who urged officials to back the effort.
“Hearing those stories, I want to be respectful of that and, at the end of the day, moving the flag out of the Sullivan Chamber isn’t going to negatively impact anybody. It isn’t,” McGovern said. “But it may make people more comfortable in coming into their city government.”
State law mandates the Massachusetts flag, weather permitting, must be displayed “on the main or administration building of each public institution of the Commonwealth.”
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office, the state flag’s custodian, told Boston.com last month there are no regulations “regarding lack of display of the flag.”
McGovern emphasized that the flag would not be kept from public view. He said he has discussed possible locations with City Manager Louis DePasquale. DePasquale would have until the council’s next meeting in late July to report back, should the order be approved.
Vice Mayor Jan Devereux said Friday the decision comes as more cities and states grapple with acknowledging “the sins of history.”
Analyzing the symbols in the Commonwealth’s flag is a healthy conversation to have, according to Devereux, one of four co-sponsors of the hearing order, along with Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui.
“I’m glad it’s happening, and I hope people take this policy order in its spirit, which is being respectful of everyone and not being disrespectful to the state,” Devereux said.
“I think it’s important not to erase history,” she later added. “I think it’s important to confront … history.”