On Signs and Symbols: Revisiting the Thin Blue Line Flag

Two recent events involving signs and their meanings have presented me with the opportunity to discuss semiotics.  First, I had a conversation with a police officer who expressed that my opinion on police reform was ill-informed because I have not served as a police officer. Furthermore, from his perspective, my support for the Black Lives Matter movement was a disavowal of law enforcement because he had seen footage and photographs of individuals associated within the movement holding signs stating, “All Cops Are Bad.” He told me, “You have never been a cop and you don’t deal with life-or-death situations.”  As a police officer, he had experienced personal threats on his life and on the lives of his family members.  He advised me to show my respect for hard-working police officers by remaining quiet on topics related to police reform.  Secondly, the church I attend in Washington, DC was one of the churches that had signs vandalized and burned by the Proud Boys last month.  They proudly posted on social media as members of their group destroyed the Black Lives Matter banner that was torn from the front of my church.  

In other forums, I argue that the semiotics of patriotism and, in particular, flags and symbols like the thin blue line flag co-opt the meaning of the American flag, which is purported to represent patriotism. The flag and similar symbols have historically been used to support a white frame of reference and messaging that is antagonistic towards the Black community, Black men in particular. In 2016, Shannon Callahan and Allison Ledgerwood conducted multiple studies that investigated the dimension of the effects of symbols on individuals within groups as well as dynamics of those symbols on the entire group.  They found, “(a) simply having a symbol leads collections of individuals to seem more like real, unified groups, (b) this increased psychological realness leads groups to seem more threatening and effective to others, and (c) group members therefore strategically emphasize symbols when they want their group to appear unified and intimidating.”  Callahan and Ledgerwood’s research tested the existence of entitativity — whether symbols reify the existence of a group — and measured the effect of symbols flags on both homogenous and heterogenous groups.  Finding that “the increased entitativity caused by symbols led groups to be perceived as more threatening and competent” and “group members strategically prioritized displaying symbols to others when they were motivated to convey an impression of their group as united and intimidating,” their analysis is an important part of this discussion.  They conclude “symbols are not simply ornamental: they serve in part as reservoirs of realness and seem to be an important part of how groups manage their social identities.”  Their conclusions are pertinent to my discussion here because they illustrate the dynamics of the meaning of the thin blue flag so often displayed by law enforcement.  The flag and similar symbols are used to establish a group identity among law enforcement and their supporters that others those the group feels do not share their values.  Using the American flag in this manner reinforces a binary whereby law enforcement are seen as American patriots while those on the other side are not.  

I am presenting here three assumptions to support my discussion: 1) Positional authority –like that exercised by police officers and other public officials — in no way establishes an a priori vantage whereby dissenting opinions are rendered illegitimate; 2) Just as every individual who wears a badge — voluntarily putting themselves on the line to protect our communities — deserves to return home to their loved ones at the end of every watch, so too do the members of the Black community these individuals encounter; and, 3) There is no hierarchy of importance to indignation; defaulting to positional authority in an attempt to de-legitimize those who bring accountability in any way while expecting different results is insanity.  However, the impact of having a symbol like the thin blue line flag reifies the psychology of separatism within the ranks of law enforcement.  This separatism is reinforced by their individual experiences encountering Black men and is systemically supported by absolute immunity and concepts like force science, which is used to justify the psychology of the use of force, particularly officer-involved shootings.

Through the lens of semiotics, using a version of the American flag – the symbol of American patriotism – as a symbol of solidarity isolating one group from another operates as more than simply an occupational symbol of pride.  The thin blue line flag, displayed by police departments and their supporters across America, is loaded with historical, temporal, and experiential contexts that convey racist and patriarchal frames of reference that have been systemically terroristic.  Born of the protests against police involved shootings across the nation, the Black Lives Matter movement has become the manifestation of the exhaustion many in the Black community experience on the topic of police involved shootings.  Shootings aside, however,  the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders and the aftermath of both have made Black people more than tired.  The antipathy expressed toward those within the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, by the officer I spoke with revealed how signs and symbols elicit responses because they convey meanings, intent, and a manner of thinking establishing group identity for individual members.  For this reason, the thin blue line flag represents a cultural dichotomy, one that challenges demands regarding police reform in the fight against systemic injustice with demands for deference and respect.  This dichotomy is not only problematic, but the challenge is also in itself irrational and unreasonable. Challenging law enforcement on systemic gaps in policy is not disrespectful; it is part and parcel of accountability to the public within a democratic republic.  But what is clear is this modified flag manifests the intention to resist and to even terrorize Black men.  The thin blue line flag symbolizes antipathy toward Black men without having to say one word.

Within the context I have established, accountability to the Black community is not oppression on law enforcement and civilian oversight of law enforcement is critically important because officers swear an oath to protect and defend communities they serve; officers do not serve each other.  What this means is ingroup/outgroup dynamics do not offer a productive foundation for bridging divides.  Moreover, when a Black individual confronts the socio-normative culture of policing, that person is often dismissed and their argument is de-legitimized for doing so by dominant culture.  For this reason, flags and symbols that indicate a psychology that is intended to distinguish one group from the other will always reveal why it is challenging to reform the relationship between law enforcement and the Black community.  For example, during my tenure on a police review board, I gradually began to wonder about the interaction between board members and the officers we worked with.  Subsequent to the Walter Scott shooting in 2015 that occurred as I was transitioning off the review board, I learned that but for the video produced by outside witnesses in the Scott case, it was possible that our review board could have possibly missed something important had that shooting occurred within our jurisdiction.  The video produced by a witness revealed that the officers involved in that incident misled investigators.  The semiotics of patriotism and, in particular, flags and symbols like the thin blue line flag usurp the traditional meaning of the American flag and, in the least, exemplify the psychology of separatism —  of “us versus them.”   In the extreme, a culture of respect and deference often impedes the questioning of officer reports and testimony.  To bring increased scrutiny would cast their words or actions as anything other than unimpeachable gospel truth, therefore inciting the wrath of the department.  This illustrates the culture of law enforcement; even under the best of conditions, there is frequently a reluctance to accept accountability from anyone outside their ranks.  

No hierarchy of importance exists with indignation — defaulting to positional authority in an attempt to de-legitimize those who bring accountability in any way while expecting different results is insanity. My experience on the review board made clear to me that the culture of deference and respect contributes to and demanded by law enforcement contributes to the systemic dysfunction between law enforcement and the Black community and symbols like the thin blue line flag capture the full nature of this dysfunction. Personally, I refuse to remain silent because I am not a police officer nor should my voice be muted to ensure deference and respect to police officers. What remains true at the end of this discussion is this: just as every individual who wears a badge, voluntarily putting themselves on the line to protect our communities, deserves to return home to their loved ones, so too do the members of the Black community deserve to go home to their loved ones. Black Lives Matter . . . always. Signs and symbols like the thin blue line flag convey more than what is intended by the groups who use, possess, and display them. Groups employ these signs as symbols of terror to those being “othered” by the symbol. They reify a distinction between groups and, when coupled with socio-normative authority for one group over the other, they contribute to a psychology of “us versus them,” thereby subverting the mission of law enforcement: “to protect and serve.”

Published by: Bryon L. Garner

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Bryon L. Garner earned his Master of Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University and is currently pursuing his PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Union Institute & University. A 2020 Ril M. Beatty Fellowship recipient, Bryon has presented and written about intersectionality, masculinity and patriotic identity and is a contributing writer for Black & Magazine. Bryon is an honored awardee at the 2020 Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Program Annual Conference, where he presented, “Her Brave Black Soldiers: Black Veterans, Patriotism, and the Soldier-Athlete Archetype.” Bryon was the subject of a Christian Science Monitor article “On Independence Day, Black Americans see hope of a larger patriotism” https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2020/0702/On-Independence-Day-Black-Americans-see-hope-of-a-larger-patriotism

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