I want to start by stating that every human being who serves in law enforcement deserves the community’s thanks and, more importantly, deserves to go home to their family and loved ones after the end of each watch. I have had the opportunity to serve as a member of a police review board and, in that capacity, I participated in many ride-alongs with officers on patrol. During one shift, officers responded to a call from a family of a mental health patient who was unmedicated and uncontrollable. It took seven officers to subdue this person who did not respond to deployments of tasers; essentially the encounter was hand-to-hand combat. Nothing takes the place of being on the street on patrol for 10 hours every day, but my small glimpse during those two years serving on the review board gave me plenty of insight into the risks as well as the rewards of being within the ranks of the thin blue line.
Even with respect and empathy for the human beings serving in blue uniforms, my perspective on policing is also shaped by my experience as a human being who happens to be Black in American society, which is why I call into question the use of the American flag in association with the Blue Lives Matter movement. In other forums, I have expressed my view that the Thin Blue Line flag, the flag many police organizations use to show solidarity, co-opts any transcending or unifying meaning represented by the American flag. Yes, one can argue showing solidarity, fraternity, and camaraderie within a profession promotes strength and professionalism. Notwithstanding, I argue the image of a grey scaled American flag with a centrally located blue line illustrates the psychological divide regarding law enforcement and the Black community. As public officials who purportedly represent the communities they serve and protect, the words, symbols, and images they employ matter; and they matter greater than insular needs of professionalism. Moreover, if the traditional image of the American flag is supposed to represent transcendent, uniting values, then the Thin Blue Line flag subverts that message by depicting a cultural divide between law enforcement and the Black community. We can argue that the traditional image of the American flag along with the Pledge of Allegiance are inexorably linked — particularly in the minds of those who closely identify as patriotic. Add to this the close identification of law enforcement with patriotic identity and, historically, a white frame of reference. Given this context, we can consider the ways in which the traditional American flag and the Pledge share a particularly fraught space as law enforcement makes contact with the Black community. I present that there are 31 words in the Pledge of Allegiance which the last eleven state, “…one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” “Liberty and justice for ‘all’” has not been achieved because equal protection under the law becomes a question for nearly every Black body that encounters law enforcement. As long as there are recurring challenges between the two communities — the Black community and the law enforcement community — and as long as avoidance of discussions related to police reform are met with non-sequiturs such as Black-on- Black crime, then it is critically important that the Thin Blue Line flag be put to rest because it is a yet another manifestation of all that is wrong with policing.
“All” does not mean all in 21st century America, that America that does not see color. The America that thinks that kneeling for the national anthem is disrespectful but believes the law enforcement showing up in any community with menacing images of the Thin Blue Line flag in the shape of the Punisher Skull is appropriate. If “all” meant everyone, then we would need to talk about how 72 Black males aged 18-29 have been shot and killed by police in 2020 as compared to 52 white males in the same category (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/). George Floyd, 46 at the time of his death, had seemingly survived the dismal odds our younger brothers faced, but his murder has galvanized the momentum to have more substantive action take place with regard to the culture of policing — not the least of which is the use of force. The bottom line is this: “All” did not mean all when it came to George Floyd or the other 72 lives lost this year to police shootings.
Behind the Thin Blue Line flag — and its iteration as the Punisher Skull — exists an “us versus them” mentality intertwined with a distorted warrior ethos closely aligned with military culture. Distorted because even within military culture there is an emphasis upon ethics. If the ethics of personal conduct and beliefs is not aligned with the mission and purpose of policing, then what results is a culture siloed from the community with which it interacts. For example, behind the flag exists a culture that gives quarter — namely, occupational deniability and psychological crutches — to those who will keep their knee on the neck of man already cuffed or for shooting someone in the back (See the concept of Force Science which promotes the perception that fear, trauma, and adrenaline often explain why threats seem more heightened in charged situations, www.forcescience.org). Behind the flag is the lack of courage to speak out about what is known to be true within the ranks, namely that there are, in fact, a number of people wearing the uniform who do not belong in their positions. Behind the images of the Thin Blue Line flag — and its iteration as the Punisher Skull — exists white male resistance to those who don’t think or act or look like them. As long as those in blue hide behind the flag, it will remain a divisive symbol of terror and gets in the way of liberty and justice for all.