Thin Blue Line or thinly-veiled racism?

How the Blue Lives Matter movement suppresses Black voices

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Photo design by Freepik and Zoe Deyoung

Instead of a symbol of support, the Thin Blue Line flag, also known as the ‘national police flag,’ causes fear and division.

It flies at your favorite hometown barbecue restaurant. It hangs in the background of your classmate’s Zoom screen. It’s plastered on your friend’s gaiter mask. It sits on a sign in your front yard.

It’s an American flag, one of its red stripes replaced with blue.

The Thin Blue Line flag is, at best, a jaded symbol of police support. At worst, it upholds the dangerous presence of white supremacy in our nation today.

Thin Blue Line’s origin story

The flag’s name originates from the Battle of Balaclava, an event that occurred during the Crimean War Oct. 25, 1854. During this encounter, a line of British troops held off a charge from the Russian cavalry, their red uniforms forming a long, thin line of red, warding off the threat of the Russian army, earning the title, ‘The Thin Red Line.’  

Many believe the phrase was repopularized in reference to law enforcement by Los Angeles Police Department chief William H. Parker, who coined the term ‘Thin Blue Line’ to describe the select few tasked with protecting our nation from descent into ‘chaos’ and ‘mass destruction.’

The ideological tenets of the Blue Lives Matter movement find their historical roots in past deflections of discussions about racial inequality. Parker claimed the American minority was not the Black community, but the police. During a court case over the segregation of his police force, the Civil Rights Commission asked Parker about the discrimination of minorites; he replied, “I think the greatest dislocated minority in America today are the police.”

A statement like this, disregarding the struggles of the Black community, is not surprising coming from Parker, as he was actively racist in his policies and rhetoric. He largely refused to hire Black police officers onto his force. He likened Black participants in the Watts riots—a riot borne mostly out of citizen anger towards Parker and his department’s racist policing—to “monkeys in a zoo.”

During a television interview about the riots, Parker said, “It is estimated that by 1970, 45% of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles will be Negro. If you want any protection for your home and family, you’re going to have to get in and support a strong police department. If you don’t, come 1970, God help you.”

This blatant racism gave way to the creation of the Thin Blue Line phrase, and continues to exist in the principles of the Thin Blue Line flag and Blue Lives Matter movement today. Parker fostered an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, a mentality that can still be seen today in racist policing, and also in the current usage of the flag as a whole. 

A counterattack to the Black Lives Matter movement

The Thin Blue Line flag was created by white University of Michigan student Andrew Jacob in 2014. He is now the president of Thin Blue Line USA, and calls his creation the “national police flag.”

But the flag came on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement’s creation, which got its start after the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of the later-acquitted George Zimmerman. After marches and protests against this injustice, people who didn’t support these protests felt inclined to support the police instead. Since then, many flags and yard signs read phrases like, ‘we defend our police’ and ‘back the blue.’ 

For most white people, the police are seen as defenders, someone to call to handle a noise complaint or careless driver. Supporting the police is easy when they’re always there to help you. Take this startling statistic from the 2019 Black Census Project that polled 30,000 Black people: “The vast majority of Black Census respondents see the excessive use of force by police officers (83%) and police officers killing Black people (87%) as problems in the community.” Instead of calling the police to avoid danger, for the Black community, the police often are the danger.

By making it known that you ‘back the blue’ during a time when those marching are merely asking for justice for the marginalized, acknowledgement of past and current injustices and police reform, backing the blue seems more like a slap in the face than a political statement.

Blue Lives Matter, by name, is an obvious counterattack to the Black Lives Matter movement, and is more about subverting attention from Black Lives Matter than it is about actually supporting the police. Oftentimes the ‘national police flag’ is flown alongside the racist confederate flag and the American flag at rallies littered with white supremacists. 

The next move

In an interview with The Marshall Project, the aforementioned Andrew Jacob shared, “the flag has no association with racism, hatred and bigotry. It’s a flag to show support for law enforcement—no politics involved.” 

Then you see the flag flown at aggressive protests like the one in Charlottesville, Va. with white nationalists holding lit tiki torches while chanting the Nazi-associated phrase “blood and soil,” all of this over a Confederate Army commander statue’s removal. 

Even if the intended purpose of the flag—despite its creation immediately following the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement—was to show support for law enforcement, its meaning has been hijacked, and its image now only causes fear and division.

Thanks to the Blue Lives Matter movement, the question that needed to be asked, ‘is our policing racist and in need of change?’ has moved to, ‘are the police the oppressed minority?” This shift of focus is just another attempt to suppress the voices trying to speak up about painful experiences with racist policing. It is a silent, but loud, overpowering of Black voices, and we should call it what it is: thinly-veiled white supremacy.

Claiming ‘Blue Lives Matter’ compares a policeman’s job to a Black person’s life. Supporting the Blue Lives Matter movement while at the same time overlooking the Black Lives Matter movement disregards the entirety of Black struggle, a struggle that is exacerbated by racist law enforcement. 

This is not to say that all police are racist, but they do work for an organization that got its start catching runaway slaves and hasn’t graduated from those same principles in the last 300 years. But we all have biases, even those who are supposed to protect us. If left untreated, those biases have and will continue to permeate the lives of minorities around us.

Touting the Thin Blue Line flag, shouting ‘Blue Lives Matter’ and placing ‘support the police’ signs in your front yard may seem innocent, but the impact of those symbols has a ripple effect that can be felt by many. Instead of a signal of support, it has taken the shape of a racist emblem, and shows a complete disregard for the Black community’s struggle with racist policing.

Photo design by Freepik