As racial discord simmers across the United States, several parts of the country continue to witness clashes between anti-racism activists and supporters of President Donald Trump.
At these confrontations, a symbol that has increasingly been put on display by right wing groups is the “thin blue line” flag – a contentious rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner- which has sparked intense debate over the years.
The banner, meant to convey support for law enforcement efforts, was displayed by Trump supporters during the recent confrontations in Kenosha– where two were fatally shot and one injured – and in Portland– where one person died.
What is the ‘Thin Blue Line’?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term is “used to refer to the police, typically in the context of maintaining order during unrest.”
The phrase itself is over a hundred years old, believed to be derived from the Thin Red Line, a military formation employed by the British Army in 1854 during the Crimean War. During the battle, the Scottish Highlanders who formed the “thin red line” earned praise for standing their ground against a cavalry charge by imperial Russia.
Publicised by the media and popularised by art forms such as songs and poetry, the term eventually came to be applied to other professions, such as firefighters.
In the 20th century, it was adopted by police departments in the US – several of whom have blue uniforms – as they began using the “thin blue line” as a phrase to extol law enforcement efforts.
The contentious flag
According to The Marshall Project, it was after 2014 that a flag representing the Thin Blue Line idea appeared; a black and white version of the American national flag, with a blue stripe running horizontally under the stars.
The flag, which aims to express support for law and order and police personnel, was soon embraced by several serving and retired officers across the country; many attaching it to their patrol vehicles, uniforms and even displaying them on face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the flag stirred controversy after it was co-opted by right wing groups, especially by the Blue Lives Matter movement, which sprung up in 2014 as a counterforce to the anti-racism Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2017, the Thin Blue Line flag was flown during the Charlottesville incident, then reported as the biggest gathering of white nationalists in over a decade, which ended with a woman being killed and at least 20 being injured after a car drove into a crowd of protesters. Fringe elements at the rally were seen carrying the banner along with Confederate flags and Nazi symbols.
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The flag’s adoption by fringe groups, however, did not sit well with all Thin Blue Line supporters. Thin Blue Line USA, among the country’s largest retailers of pro-police merchandise, condemned the flag’s display at the Charlottesville rally, and issued a statement saying, “We reject, in the strongest possible terms, any association of our flag with racism, hatred, and bigotry. To use it in such a way tarnishes what it and our nation believes in.”
In 2019, a law enforcement agency in Oregon state paid $100,000 to a Black employee who alleged that she was harassed after asking her colleagues in the office to not display Thin Blue Line flags.
This year, the debate over the flag has become even more fraught as protests against racism and police brutality have swept the US since the death of George Floyd. Those who believe that the flag is polarising have asked law enforcement agents to stop using it, while others have maintained that it is a symbol that honours police sacrifices.
The acrimonious dispute is expected to continue in the coming months, especially since President Trump, who is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden in opinion polls for the November presidential race, has along with other Republicans aggressively pushed forward a “law and order” plank to take voters away from the Democratic camp.
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