The Bellingham Police Department should not use the “Thin Blue Line” flag

The Bellingham Police Department sign on May 30 2020. Photo by Lee Che Leong

UPDATE May 31, 2020:

As of the morning of May 31st, the sign is gone. Chief Doll took it down himself.

I personally removed the sign this morning and we will work towards an image that is more inclusive for our Community. We are saddened that the original intent of the image has been co-opted by others to beget a different meaning.

I thank you for your outreach and communication. Dave.

David Doll — Police Chief

Bellingham Police Department

Thank you to everyone who wrote in letters on this topic. And special thanks to Chief Doll for promptly making this decision which was surely a difficult one. It is reassuring to know that our police chief takes public input seriously.

The Bellingham Police Department sign today, May 31, 2020. Photo by Alex McLean

Now what? The Department has been admirably responsive on this issue, but what happens when the going gets tough? Did you know that Bellingham does not have an independent civilian oversight board? If you’re writing Chief Doll to thank him for removing the flag, please ask him to support an independent civilian complain review board too. Read more about the topic at Reform/Transform from Local Progress.

ORIGINAL POST from May 30, 2020:

For those of you who feel content that Bellingham, Washington is a supposedly progressive city, are you aware that the Bellingham Police Department has a “Thin Blue Line” (aka “Blue Lives Matter”) logo on the sign in front of the police station? Many police departments have banned their officers from using this symbol [link], because of its association with white nationalist groups in Charlottesville and its perceived opposition to #BlackLivesMatter.

I was curious when this logo appeared. A bit of research with Google Street View shows the old sign in September 2018, but imagery from July 2019 shows the new sign with the Thin Blue Line / Blue Lives Matter logo. So the Police Department added it sometime between Sept ’18 and Jul ‘19.

[Update: SJ Robson also tracked down a BPD Facebook post that shows they’ve had this logo up on the wall inside the department lobby at least as early as September 2017. There are also numerous posts on the BPD’s Facebook page where they are selling t-shirts and blankets with this logo as a fundraiser.]

There’s a bit of discussion about this happening today on Facebook, and I’ve heard some people have already been writing to Police Chief Doll of the Bellingham PD, and he’s already replied to them today. It is to his credit that he’s engaging with citizen input so promptly and sincerely. But as I expected, his response is that the Thin Blue Line symbol is not meant to represent Blue Lives Matter, and he argues that the concept of the “blue line” has been around long before Blue Lives Matter. That is true, but this particular flag has not.

Ok, first, let’s recognize that yes, there is a difference between “Blue Lives Matter” and the “Thin Blue Line.” I appreciate that Chief Doll recognizes this difference, and he seems to be clear that he does not support the Blue Lives Matter movement. Embracing the Thin Blue Line as a symbol of police pride is one thing (and I’m not trying to stop the police from doing that) but where it strays into the territory where police start thinking of themselves as the victims and dismissing the very real complaints of the Black Lives Matter movement, that’s where we as members of the public must draw the line.

So, about this new flag logo, is it clear to the public what it represents, what the BPD intends for it to represent?

Various forms of Thin Blue Line flags have existed for a while, that is true, but usually just as a blue stripe on a black field. It seems that this particular version of the Thin Blue Line flag (with the blue line superimposed on a B&W American flag) was invented in 2014, which was coincidentally the year that Black Lives Matter entered the widespread American consciousness after Ferguson. We should note that the Blue Lives Matter movement was also formed in 2014, and they have been using this flag for as long as it has existed. So we are not dealing with a case where a pre-existing symbol has been co-opted by bad actors. From the time of its creation, this flag has been a symbol of both the Thin Blue Line concept and the Blue Lives Matter movement. And fine, even if you don’t think this is a strong enough argument, this flag was adopted by white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017, so as a symbol it has been thoroughly compromised for at least half of its very short history.

Plus, all of this was known when they adopted this logo in 2019. It’s not like this is some sports mascot that we now recognize is racist but we can’t bear to change because it has so much beloved history. This particular logo has almost no history at all, why fight to keep it if it has negative associations for so many members of the public?

Finally, what about this argument that it’s okay for the BPD to use this symbol because they don’t intend to imply support for Blue Lives Matter, and therefore it’s not their fault if someone else makes that association? I’m somewhat sympathetic to this line of reasoning: if some extremist groups try to co-opt an image, does that instantly mean everyone else should stop using that image? Of course, not. But on the other end of the spectrum, when an image or logo or flag becomes so thoroughly associated with an extremist group (like Pepe the Frog), absolutely everyone else who does not support those extreme views must stop using that image. Whether or not the image or logo itself is neutral, at some point it becomes too far gone in most people’s eyes, and it is impossible to redeem, no matter how good your intentions are in using it. Some people still think they can fly the confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, but the mainstream now sees this as one of the most potent and clear symbols of anti-black racism. Similarly, good luck trying to use a swastika today by telling people “it was a hindu symbol of spirituality and well-being before the Nazis got a hold of it!”

So is this Thin Blue Line flag the same as a swastika or a confederate flag? No, of course I’m not saying that. There is clearly a large part of the population that sees this flag as nothing more than a symbol of police pride. But there is also a large part of the population that sees it as inextricably tied up with police violence and racism. This is an association that will not change in many people’s minds. As public servants who are accountable to all of us, the police must be held to a higher standard: they should not use such a divisive symbol on their official signage, and they must make the effort to understand why it makes members of our community feel unsafe. If they really want to do their jobs and protect all of us, and earn the trust of everyone in this community, they must remove this logo.

Further thoughts and links:

As an aside, it’s surprising that anyone who supports the American flag doesn’t consider this a desecration of the flag and a violation of the U.S. Flag Code. What’s wrong with the existing U.S. flag? What about it don’t they like?

For some interesting backstory on the creation of this version of the Thin Blue Line flag, check out this article from Harpers Magazine. It’s telling that the creator of the flag was a 19-year-old who was not from a police family and had no interest in being a police officer himself, although he did have an unhealthy obsession with the comic-book character The Punisher, known for vigilante justice and extreme violence.

And to be fair and balanced™️, I always try to read some examples of the other side of the argument. I found this pro-police perspective in favor of the Thin Blue Line flag to be informative, if not convincing. Note how this piece claims that the only remotely fact-based argument against the flag is its association with white supremacists, completely missing the bigger problems with its association with Blue Lives Matter (which it doesn’t mention at all). But really, the fact that this whole site is called Brothers Before Others? How the hell are we supposed to interpret that, other than “police lives matter more than civilians”?

Lead Cartographer at @stamen / election reformer @FairVoteWA / founder @LocalgroupBham. Maps, networks, visualization, code. 15 min of fame: @pop_vs_soda

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