By David M. Greenwald
A few weeks ago I posted a column in light of the city getting what otherwise would have been a spectacular gift commemorating the beautiful life and tragic death of Natalie Corona—but it was a gift that unfortunately was co-opted by the reality of the imagery of the Thin Blue Line flag.
If we want to overcome a legacy of racism and reimagine policing in the 21st Century, then we must be cognizant of the power of symbols.
This past week NBC News ran a story out of the University of Wisconsin where Chief Kristen Roman, of the university police, banned the flag and its imagery, arguing that it has been “co-opted” by extremists and that “hateful ideologies” run counter to the department’s core values.
Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the most progressive communities in the country. It is also a university town, the capitol of Wisconsin, but fairly white.
The controversy in that department began in November over a photo posted to its Twitter account that showed a “Thin Blue Line” flag displayed at the police department’s office. Many have argued that the flag, which has a big blue stripe in the middle as a sign of support for law enforcement, increasingly has been used as an opposition to Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement and, even worse, as a symbol of white supremacy and the support for the Blue Lives Matter cause.
Unlike in other locations, however, the chief took this issue on directly.
“To many within and outside of the police profession, it symbolizes a commitment to public service and the countless selfless sacrifices willingly made to honor that commitment, up to and including laying down one’s own life to protect the lives of others,” Roman said in a statement on November 17. “But like many things in our society, we understand the imagery of the thin blue line has evolved to mean different things to different people. Sentiments about the imagery range from neutral to denoting professional pride to expressing support for law enforcement to highlighting a toxic ‘us vs. them’ law enforcement culture informed by hate.
“This is particularly true today when the imagery has, in some cases, been co-opted to denote support of white supremacist ideologies, shirk police accountability, or otherwise dishonor the police profession.”
She said at that time “we unequivocally condemn any usage or depiction of this imagery intended to defend hate or to attempt to invalidate social justice movements advocating for meaningful police reform. Second, the values of UWPD, in spirit and practice, continue to be rooted in notions of fairness, partnership, and service to our campus community.”
But in the past week that message grew stronger.
Two weeks ago she added, “I’m certain we can all agree that the actions and hateful ideologies of extremists who have so visibly co-opted the thin blue line flag in the promotion of their views not only threaten our democracy, our communities, and justice in all forms, they run counter to UWPD’s core values and significantly impede our efforts to build trust. This, in turn, places officers at greater risk physically and emotionally.”
She added, “Guided by our core values, my responsibility to ensure your safety as best I’m able, and by what I believe in my heart is the right thing to do under present circumstances, I am moved to enact specific measures to distance UWPD from the thin blue line imagery and the fear and mistrust that it currently evokes for too many in our community.”
She said, “Attempts I’ve made to point to distinctions and true meaning as well as denounce acts committed under the thin blue line banner nationally continue to fall short in ways I can’t simply ignore. The balance has tipped, and we must consider the cost of clinging to a symbol that is undeniably and inextricably linked to actions and beliefs antithetical to UWPD’s values.”
As a result, visible public displays of Thin Blue Line” imagery—flags, pins, bracelets, notebooks, coffee mugs and decals—are not allowed while on duty.
Officers with “Thin Blue Line” tattoos are not required to cover them, she said, adding, “my intent is not that we reject outright the symbol for what we understand it to represent, nor do I believe it to be inherently racist/fascist as many purport.”
Instead, she said, her “intent is to be reasonably responsive to its detrimental impact on many in our community for whom the visible symbol holds a very different meaning.”
As the city of Davis undergoes a conversation about re-imaging the police, we believe that the city and police department here should make a similar statement, a similar commitment, and ban this symbol that has become a symbol of white supremacy and opposition to police reform—and is antithetical to the values of our community.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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