Commentary: Yes, the Thin Blue Line Imagery Has Been Co-Opted – Davis Should Ban It

Blue Lives Matter rally in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 30, 2020. Morry Gash / AP file

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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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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68 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    Most people see the thin blue line flag as honoring our police for the hard job they do protecting our society.  Just because some may have co-opted it or others may be offended by it is no reason for it to be banned.

        1. Keith Olsen

          I know he can’t because using his examples the American flag has been co-opted too.  Which leads to should Davis ban the use of the American flag too if it’s going to ban the thin blue line flag?

      1. Ron Glick

        “Most people? Do you have something that backs that up?”

        “… we believe that the city and police department here should make a similar statement, …”

        Who is this we? Do you have something to back that up?

    1. Bill Marshall

      Keith O…

      Understand what you’re saying… but same is true of the “confederate battle flag”… originally a symbol of pride in ‘home’, being the Southern states… it depicts the cross of St Andrew (see flag of Scotland), and Scotland was notorious for wanting to be independent of the King of England… it was not a symbol of insurrection per se, but a symbol of a fierce independence… it has an orange background, symbolic of Protestantism, another symbol of independence from the Vatican, on religious issues… not white supremacy… within the cross, is the number of States that seceded… in and of itself, all symbols of pride and determination, nothing more…

      But as the title of the article, and text of the article indicates, it got “co-opted”… ironically because Northerners, attacked it as counter to Union values of the Union, then later as a symbol of pro-slavery, then later as white supremacy, fed by white supremacists from the South then used it as a symbol of defiance of Reconstruction, Emancipation, end of the antebellum lifestyle, etc.  As a result of these ‘labels’, it became a very negative symbol to many, many of whom were very vocal, and adamant that it, and anything associated with the Convederacy be “purged”…

      So, the “Thin Blue Line” flag, which used the American flag ‘logo’, substitued a blue ‘field’, and red and white stripes, to one that has a black field, white stars, and black and white stripes, save one.

      So, sooner or later, the TBL flag wll go the way of the Confederate battle flag… it is only that the push is sooner, than later… for pretty much the same reason… a very divisive climate in society…

      It is what it is…

      1. Alan Miller

        … originally a symbol of pride in ‘home’, being the Southern states…

        The States with slavery.

        it got “co-opted”…

        I’m not sure it did.  It was the same group, before and after the Civil War, no?  Was it ever a positive symbol to those opposed to slavery?

        ironically because Northerners, attacked it as counter to Union values of the Union,

        But no outside group co-opted it, it was used by the South, before and after.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Alan… there was slavery in the Northern (limited, and called ‘indentured servitude’) and border states, too [why the EP only freed slaves in states ‘then in rebellion’]… who never flew the Confederate battle flag… you are conflating origins with outcomes… the fact is, many of those in the South seceded to protect “states rights”, the main of which was slavery, but also involved a LOT of other issues, such as tariffs… to say it was “all about slavery” is false, and perpetrated by many Northern “large business” folk who wanted to steer folk away from looking at tariff taxes and other issues… slavery was not the ONLY economic or political issue… it was the issue that was “sold”, in the Northern press, to get soldiers to fight the insurrection… probably would have had few recruits to fight on the issues of tariffs… suspect that a majority of Northerners wouldn’t have given a damn (Yankee) if the Southern states seceded, had not the “it’s about slavery” card had been played by the fervent ‘abolishionists’, backed by companies who were thinking about their own economic (not moral) self-interests…

          By the time Lincoln took office, there was exactly one battle, the taking of Fort Sumter… no deaths, except a Union soldier when a ceremonial cannon mis-fired, during the retirement of the flag.

          The first ‘invasion’ came from the North. That’s why the Civil War was called the war of Northern Agression, in the South, again, as “spin” to enlist troops…

        2. Bill Marshall

          The Confederate battle flag did not exist before secession… until 9 states seceded… after Lincoln became president.

          The Civil War came about at least as much from economic turmoil, rather than any moral considerations about slavery.

          Slavery, used to grow cotton, tobacco, etc., was an ‘engine’ for the South, and Southern cotton was a necessity for the Northern mills… the South got better prices from England, so less cotton went north… England provided cash and manufactured goods to the South, in exchange, which further cut into the North’s profits/livelihood… hence, the tariffs issues…

  2. Chris Griffith

    David 🤗

    Do you a list of city council members that would be behind this genius idea that a way of the world can see who they are?

    It would be nice to know who they are before the next election cycle 😲

    For that matter just get a list of all city employees that would be behind that genius idea..

  3. Chris Griffith

    If the best and the brightest of Davis decided to vote for this idea they would become a roadkill at the next election cycle.

    This is just one person some opinion

  4. Don Shor

    The city does not need to do anything. The police chief may wish to issue a policy with regard to displays of the symbol by officers. It would be wise for that policy to be reviewed with respect to their freedom to display any symbolic representations on or with their uniforms.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Unlikely, Don… PD has been flying the American flag at half-staff for around a month, in clear violation of the U.S. Flag Code…  United States Flag Code | The American Legion

      CC has chosen not to interfere with that… why would they as to TBL displays, particularly given the iconic picture of Natalie, with one, while many in PD still grieve her loss?  And the collage that David mentions…

      1. Chris Griffith

        PD has been flying the American flag at half-staff for around a month, in clear violation of the U.S. Flag

        I think the cops are just kind of being politically correct personally I think a lot of the cops would just simply like to fly the flag upside down but considering  cops just want to stay neutral and they do work  in Davis they just fly at half mast instead.

         

  5. John Hobbs

    “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.”

    Maybe you should have some sort of community convocationto determine what the community’s values really are. Create a Mission, Vision, Values and Goals declaration. I would not be surprised if it turned out that Davis values privilege over equality and property rights over human rights.

  6. Chris Griffith

    In an age where we have1619 project  people running around tearing down statues Facebook censoring people it just seems only right to protest the thin blue line American flag. Isn’t that what the girls from Davis do??

    What say you

  7. Alan Miller

    The TBL flag has a particular meaning to police officers throughout the country.   My understanding is a group in North Carolina flew it during a white supremacy rally, and it took off from there.  I don’t believe all police are white supremacists, however you’d like to define that, and I believe most police see it as a symbol of memorial for fallen officers.  However, there are enough white supremacist police in parts of the country that the flag crossed the line like a coronavirus crossing the line from bats to humans 😐  (metaphor only works if you believe that theory)

    Symbols indeed are powerful.  However, symbols shouldn’t be given the symbolic power to those who steal them.  This empowers the thieves.  What should have happened is that police departments the country over should have immediately condemned the use of the flag outside of memorializing fallen officers.  To the degree this didn’t happen, this opened the door for the TBL flag to be attacked because of its use by white supremacy groups.

    I am certain Natalie Corona never saw the TBL flag as anything but a symbol to honor fallen officers when she did her tragically ironic photo shoot.  I am also convinced that the praise heaped on this young woman was real — I have heard nothing but good things from anyone who knew her or had contact with her.  I believe she could have been a shining light in the DPD and would have been Chief some day.  Criticism of the the TBL flag should never taint the image of Natalie Corona, and that beautiful picture of her with the flag should never be besmirched, banned or removed.

    The reaction by BLM Sacramento, politicizing Natalie Corona’s death just two days after she was killed, forever soured me to the BLM organization (not the BLM movement).  Extremely disrespectful to her death, they made it about the TBL flag in her photos, showing the TBL flag peeling back from a Nazi flag beneath it, and then calling for people to steal TBL flags in the streets of Davis honoring Natalie to build an art piece in Sacramento.

    So if you wanted my sympathy and understanding in the symbolism of the TBL flag, y’all lost it with that move.

    In an article a couple of weeks ago about the insurrection, a black officer protecting the U.S. Capitol was attacked by insurrectionist arseholes who were carrying the TBL flag.  The black officer said (paraphrasing), “You attack us while carrying that flag?”.  What seemed to be missed was that the black officer clearly said “that flag” as symbolizing to him respect/memorial/unity for police, not white supremacy.  I’m sure the insurrectionists were carrying it as a symbol of white supremacy, but who gave the flag that power?  Not the insurrectionists, but those who declared that it had been co-opted by white supremacists and publicized that nationally, and police departments nationwide that did not not roundly condemn the flag-symbol’s misuse from the moment that started.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Criticism of the the TBL flag should never taint the image of Natalie Corona, and that beautiful picture of her with the flag should never be besmirched, banned or removed.

      Absolutely agree… I hope all can…

  8. Tia Will

    What I see so far:

    1. We have an opinion piece calling for a ban on a controversial symbol.

    2. We have a poster claiming to know how the “majority” feels. Which coincidently seems to mirror his own perspective.

    3. We have questions regarding how council members might feel about the issue and speculation about removing them from office based on how they might feel.

    4. We have speculation about what the Chief of Police might do.

    I would call everyone’s attention to what did, in fact, happen when the police made a basically unilateral decision on the very controversial MRAP. There was a huge push back from the community resulting in an outcome I am sure the police and city council would prefer had resulted differently or at least more quietly. Maybe there is something to be learned here?  Like so many things in Davis in which a poll is conducted, maybe it would spare both time and grief to actually ask the citizenry what they would prefer rather than anyone having to speculate.

    1. Alan Miller

      when the police made a basically unilateral decision on the very controversial MRAP.

      Are you speaking about the unilateral decision to purchase the MRAP that was then attacked by the citizens of Davis because it looked like a tank, or the unilateral decision to purchase a MRAP that performed the same function, but didn’t get attacked by the citizens of Davis because it looks like an Amazon delivery truck?

    2. Keith Olsen

      Maybe there is something to be learned here?  Like so many things in Davis in which a poll is conducted, maybe it would spare both time and grief to actually ask the citizenry what they would prefer rather than anyone having to speculate.

      So if a poll was conducted where say maybe 55% were in support of the TBL flag would you Tia be okay with it not being banned?

        1. Keith Olsen

          Yeah, I notice she hasn’t replied yet.  But what you say Alan is the truth.  But how about if one person is offended by the banning of the flag by the city?  Does it work both ways?

  9. Tia Will

    I’m sure the insurrectionists were carrying it as a symbol of white supremacy, but who gave the flag that power?  Not the insurrectionists, but those who declared that it had been co-opted by white supremacists and publicized that nationally,”

    Really? You don’t think the white supremacists should have any responsibility for the co-opting of the meaning of the flag?  You truly believe without the acquiescence of those who honor the original meaning, it would not have been perverted. This would seem to me to be a master class in victim-blaming. This, in my perspective, would be the equivalent of blaming BLM for the disparate treatment of blacks by law enforcement. Kind of an “if we just don’t talk about it, it won’t exist”.

    1. John Hobbs

      “This would seem to me to be a master class in victim-blaming.”

      Yup.

      ” Kind of an “if we just don’t talk about it, it won’t exist”.”

      The Davis way, no?

      Davis police  are abusive to photographers, don’t know or observe social distancing, don’t know or enforce the US Constitution and try to hide their many incompetent officers’ misdeeds, like all US police departments. Pytel has a lousy poker face.

    2. Alan Miller

      You don’t think the white supremacists should have any responsibility for the co-opting of the meaning of the flag?

      Of course, without question.  But how are you going to stop them?  Surely not by giving the symbol the very power they want for it.

      You truly believe without the acquiescence of those who honor the original meaning, it would not have been perverted.

      I stated that police departments should have spoken up nationawide.

      This would seem to me to be a master class in victim-blaming.

      I’m not sure what, exactly, you are calling a master class.

      This, in my perspective, would be the equivalent of blaming BLM for the disparate treatment of blacks by law enforcement.

      I’m not sure if you are talking about BLM the movement or the organization.  Not that it matters in this context, but it matters generally.  Nor do I know what you mean by “this”.  I certainly am not blaming either BLM for the disparate treatment of blacks by law enforcement, and I don’t believe I’m doing something equivalent.

      Kind of an “if we just don’t talk about it, it won’t exist”.

      We most certainly are talking about it, so I guess it exists.

  10. Alan Miller

    Natives of this continent continue to be mistreated and disrespected in this country.  I have renewed reading about the genocide and rounding up of the American natives and am appalled at the brazen entitlement of the U.S. to take whatever they wanted.  This continues to this day, though it is subtle through broken systems and backhanded legal maneuvers.  As so often happens, the very systems that are in place to ‘help’ continue the oppression.  Especially in the ‘heartland’, the rot, resentment and debris from the displacement, slaughter and dehumanization remain.

    Can this rift truly ever be healed under the banner of the stars and stripes?  What did the natives see coming at them when the cavalry attacked?  Blue, Red, White.  Could the American flag ever not symbolize death, relocation, genocide, poverty, and despair to a native of this land?  Could the stars and stripes ever not be seen as an occupying force?  The “Indian” wars were only a handful of generations back.

    We will never go back to how things were before the so-called “Indian” wars.  Occupation of America by Europeans was probably inevitable, but that doesn’t make it right.  For the U.S. to truly heal these deep wounds, the continued use of this symbol must be questioned and up for debate.

    I expect this will take awhile 😐

  11. Chris Griffith

    I would call everyone’s attention to what did, in fact, happen when the police made a basically unilateral decision on the very controversial MRAP. There was a huge push back from the community resulting in an outcome I am sure the police and city council would prefer had resulted differently or at least more quietly. Maybe there is something to be learned here? 

    yep there is a serious lesson to be learned here if the damn cops would yanked out 8.1 liter engine inserted a couple of bicycles to make a pedal powered and dressed up the SWAT team in tight fitting  pink spandex and made them all throw away their guns and make them wear squirt guns instead this thing would have been passed by the city council and Davis would have it today 🙄 it does have happy ending  woodland got it instead and they’re real happy.

     

    1. Alan Miller

      I’d love to take the swastika back.  Maybe a universal agreement never to use it with the Nazi colors would be a way to bring back its original, pre-co-opted meaning.  There’s a pre-WW-II house up the block with a swastika on the chimney.  It’s beautiful.  I think it’s a reversed one, but I’d have to look again.  Why allow long-dead Nazis to continue to give it their evil symbolic power?  Right after WW-II, absolutely, “too soon”.  It’s time to take it back.

        1. Ron Oertel

           I am talking about taking the Nazi power out of the symbol.

          I feel like saying that you can take the “Nazi power out of the symbol”, but you can’t take the “symbol out of the Nazi power”.

          Something like that. Does that mean anything? Not sure, even as I sit here staring at it.

        2. Alan Miller

          OK, I guess you can’t have cigarette commercials on TV or in links in Vanguard comment section links.  So I’ll hum a few bars.

          I feel like saying that you can take the “Nazi power out of the symbol”, but you can’t take the “symbol out of the Nazi power”.

          #singing#  You can take Nazi power out of the symbol, BUT . . . #Ding!#

          You can’t the symbol out of Nazi pow-er . . .  #trumpet#

           

        3. Ron Oertel

          I’m not sure why that was deleted, as it was both hilarious (and subsequently annoying – as that tune has now been reactivated/reburned into my memory bank, after many decades have past).

          Man, the power of advertising jingles. Evil geniuses (but not quite on par with Nazis, I guess).

          Sort of like how you can never get rid of what you post on the Internet.

      1. Bill Marshall

        The swastika is an ancient symbol found in many cultures, including SW American, India, Mongolia, China, and Japan… actually, positive symbology, clockwise or counterclockwise… the Schmeiser house to which I think Alan refers, I have heard from several sources, was using the SW Native American referent…

        Not sure where the Nazi party appropriated it from…

  12. Jacob Derin

    I think what’s being proposed here is that the city government and police department ban the on-duty display of this symbol, since it would be obviously unconstitutional to ban it wholesale.

    The key word here is “co-opted.” If there’s nothing “inherently” racist or fascist about the flag, then the justification for banning it even in that limited context is pretty weak. In a democracy, you need very good reasons for stopping people from speaking.

    I can see there being reasons for stopping on duty government officials from displaying unambiguous symbols of hate, like the Nazi swastika or Ku Klux Klan imagery, but the whole point of the Thin Blue Line flag is to recognize the sacrifices of police officers, not support extrajudicial violence or racism.

    1. Keith Olsen

       If there’s nothing “inherently” racist or fascist about the flag, then the justification for banning it even in that limited context is pretty weak. In a democracy, you need very good reasons for stopping people from speaking.

      Excellent point Jacob.  The flag represents support for our police and the hard job they perform.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

  13. John Hobbs

    It is illegal for public employees to wear political pins or display political symbols on the job and has been for at least 50 years. We are sworn to serve the public, even the mendacious and obtuse.

  14. Bill Marshall

    Oh no?  No BLM pins?  (KO)
    Support ribbons of multiple colors? (AM)

    Aye, there’s the “rub”… are either/both ‘political’, or supportive of “social justice”?  Is ‘social justice’ political?

    More to the point of the article, is the TBL flag image ‘socially supportive’, or ‘political’?

    Actually that is already the case… at least in Davis…Sometimes the ‘rub’ is “what is consisered ‘political’”… (WM)

    In short – they aren’t. (DG)

    All are judgement calls… “eye of the beholder” thingy… very glad I don’t need to decide as a supervisor in the workplace…

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