We Don't Need Lines, We Need Unity
“The Thin Blue Line” and its origin: There’s a huge range of reasons and contexts in which people fly it. The meaning of the flag depends, in part on how it’s being used and by whom and what circumstance. National tensions around equity, race and policing brought on by the high-profile police killings of unarmed Black Americans have fueled the recent dialog surrounding local use of the flag.
Those who fly the flag have said it stands for solidarity and professional pride within a dangerous, difficult profession and the solemn tribute to fallen police officers. The idea is that police are the force that stands between law and order and chaos, the force that safeguards society against disorder. This couldn’t be further from the historical truth.
“The Force” pretty strong language.
Ronald Reagan once said “Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.” Above the blue line represents the “good”, while below the line represents the “evil.”
While some claim the flag has no association with racism, hatred, or bigotry and was solely created to show support for American police officers, the history of this flag tells a completely different story.
Before the flag, came the phrase. The idea of a “thin blue line” can be traced back to a British battle formation, a “thin red line” used by the 93rd Highland Regiment of Foot of the British Army at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, in which the Scottish Highlanders stood their ground against a Russian Cavalry charge during the Crimean War. The term would later spread to other professions and then popularized in art, poetry and song. In 1911 a poem by Nels Dickman Anderson, titled “Thin Blue Line” where the phrase is used to refer to the United States Army, alluding both to “The Thin Red Line” and to the fact that US Army soldiers wore blue uniforms from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century.
“The thin blue line that fights for right, That never bends the knee to might, Has ever since it knew God’s light, Fought dark oppression in his lair, Abd routed wrong from valleys fair, Sweet Peace and Plenty leaving there.”
We would later see these powerful images of “Blue Lines” covered in riot gear 167 years later as they stand together and engage in police brutality towards those who want to exercise their Constitutional Right to Free Speech & Assembly. The argument of the “fallen officer” really has nothing to do with the original meaning of the “blue line.” It’s the image that portrays the “line of force.”
The usage caught on in 1922, after New York Police Commissioner Richard Enright, facing criticism of his leadership, mentioned it in a public relations effort stating that “The Thin Blue Line” is near breaking. In the 1950’s “The Thin Blue Line” was the title of a briefly running television show about the Los Angeles Police Department, masterminded by Chief William H. Parker. Parker was known for his ambiguous racism. He said some immigrants were “not far removed from wild tribes of Mexico” and compared black residents participating in the Watts Riots, which stemmed in part from anger over his own department’s mistreatment to “monkey’s in a zoo.” Parker used the phrase “Thin Blue Line” constantly in his speeches. In his view, the police “protected western civilization (where have we heard this term before?) from communists, progressive politicians, minorities, and anybody who agitated for something that didn’t fit his very narrow scheme. After Parker’s death in 1966 the city named the police headquarters after him (The Parker Center) which went on to be the primary site of protests in 1992 after police were filmed beating Rodney King. Parker’s tenure would also produce a bigger shift towards militarism in police departments, which came to buy military gear directly from the Department of Defense. Oh, well, thank you Chief Parker for your contribution to militarized police departments instead of focusing on ending racial brutality. In the 1970s and ‘80s the phrase was popularized in books and films, including the 1988 documentary, “The Thin Blue Line” which tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, trial and wrongful conviction in the killing of Robert Wood, a Police Officer in Dallas. In the film the judge is moved by the prosecutor’s use of the phrase “The Thin Blue Line.”
The phrase picked up steam and controversy again more notably in 2014 with the Blue Lives Matter movement. It was started in response to Black Lives Matter after the homicides of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Lui on December 20th, 2014 and grew out of a series of instances across the nation in which police officers were killed in the line of duty. The movement advocates that those who are prosecuted and convicted of killing law enforcement officers should be sentenced under hate crime status. This seems redundant considering anyone convicted of killing a law enforcement officer is already punished with a greater sentence. Some states have already passed laws that categorize physical attacks on law enforcement officers as a hate crime, so why is it not equally the same for police officers who wrongfully kill people of color? The flag itself for the “Blue Lives Matter” movement emerged sometime in 2014 as the movement grew more prominence. The flag is entrenched in racism of the Blue Lives Matter movement, which is mostly used as an anti-black, pro-police response to the Black Lives Matter movement. To add to the evidence supporting the racism behind this flag it has been flown by white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, appearing next to Confederate Flags and All Lives Matter Flags, most notably in a rally in 2017 during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and flown and supported by our all to well-known racist former President, 45. So stop pretending your love of law enforcement isn’t surrounded by racist beliefs. The Blue Lives Matter movement has yet to produce a “Blue Life.”
Critics of Blue Lives Matter, state that one’s job can never reach a deep identity significance of solidarity that one’s racial identity can. Supporters of Blue Lives Matter are intentionally or unintentionally supporting a system of discriminatory policing and racial profiling. The flag repurposes the Black Lives Matter movement to shift focus to law enforcement- a chosen profession, not a racial identity and thus denigrates, dilutes and demeans the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement. The concept fails to recognize the communities’ role in public safety and the importance of community-police relations. It fosters this “us” vs. “them” mentality. The police and the community should work together, in order to produce safety. Each should respect the role of the other. If you’re looking at the community as a potential enemy or threat, that’s certainly going to hinder any positive relationship.
Images of the “Thin Blue Line” flag are endless in the type of merchandise that can be bought, everything from flags, face shields (handed out by police unions across the country) key chains, stickers, apparel and so on. You can even find merchandise with Mathew 5:9 attached to it meaning “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” As the images have multiplied, so have the meanings. Here’s where it gets personal for me. The American Flag and the blue line have often blended with the image of a skull associated with The Punisher, an ex-marine turned vigilante who first appeared in Marvel comics in 1974, combating crime through extrajudicial murder and torture. Combining the skull and thin blue line creates a far greater concern as to its symbolism worn by law enforcement to the level of police brutality and executions of black, brown and indigenous people throughout the country that it’s ok for law enforcement to engage in this level of torture and murder, and go unpunished under the shield of qualified immunity.
It is also widely known that “the thin blue line” also refers to an unwritten code of silence used to cover up police misconduct, also known as the “blue wall of silence”, a term dating back to 1978. The code is considered to be an example of police corruption and misconduct. Officers who engaged in discriminatory arrests, physical or verbal harassment, and selective enforcement of law may be considered corrupt. Wait…selective enforcement of law? When law enforcement agencies choose to arrest black individuals during a curfew and allow their white counterparts to walk freely? Does that qualify? Or when black protestors are faced with the “Blue Line” of “force” with tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and arrests while their white counterparts are faced with the “Blue Line” of welcoming handshakes and selfies. This seems pretty evident as “selective enforcement of law.” Many officers who follow the code may participate in some of these acts during their career for personal matters or in order to protect or support fellow officers. Officers who follow the code are unable to report fellow officers who participate in corruption due to the unwritten laws of their “police family.” Officers who do not lie in court may be threatened and ostracized by fellow police officers.
In 1992, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption (Mollen Commission) undertook a two-year investigation on perjury in law enforcement. They discovered that some officers falsified documents such as arrest reports, warrants and evidence to provide cover for an illegal arrest or search. Some police officers also fabricated stories when testifying before a jury. This sounds all too familiar. The code and police corruption stems from the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was known for using police officers to violently end strikes. Many members of the Ku Klux Klan were police officers who protected each other when conducting racist acts. This all sounds eerily familiar with large numbers of white supremacists as law enforcement or political officials in today’s culture. Nothing’s changed. I think we need to form another commission to investigate these still ongoing issues.
These pretty little lines and codes of silence would later give rise to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave new protections to the victims who had long suffered discriminatory policing. A series of landmark Supreme Court decisions during the era gave new force both to individual privacy as well as to curbs upon police power. Highly influential cases resulted in the strengthening of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable Search and Seizure, evidentiary rules forbidding the use at trial of evidence tainted by unconstitutional police actions, and the establishment of the Miranda Warning requiring officers to advise detained suspects of their constitutional rights.
So next time you decide to honor your law enforcement officers remember the history behind that “Thin Blue Line” and its true meaning and then justify your so-called non-racist beliefs. When you fly this flag you’re not honoring a law enforcement officer for their duty or their unfortunate falling. You’re supporting a racist symbol and police brutality. Know your symbolism before you start supporting it blindly.