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Symbols, Intentions and Outcomes

Thinking about the Thin Blue Line imagery

Bluelinebadge OfficerCoronaI had originally intended my previous post, “Processing the events surrounding the tragic killing of Officer Corona,” to be my only published thoughts on the subject. But recent discussion of the Thin Blue Line imagery on social media and in a recent Enterprise article have convinced me that more needs to be said, if only to try to help people to see what the concerns are, even if they ultimately still disagree with those concerns.

But before doing that, let me again reiterate, because it’s important, my deepest condolences for the family, friends, and colleagues of Officer Natalie Corona as well as my thanks for all the public safety professionals who risked their lives to keep everyone else safe on the tragic night that she was killed.

As is pretty widely known by now, some UCD students and others have objected to the Thin Blue Line imagery, both in the American flag and in the Davis Police Badge.  They equate the imagery not only with the Blue Lives Matter movement, which they see as deeply problematic, but also with white supremacism.  Again, this article in The Public, dated June 26, 2018, sums up the association better than I can, and also shows that this isn’t something that local activists made up.

I’m not in a position to say whether these objections to the imagery were done respectfully, simply because I didn’t see or hear all of them.  Maybe they weren’t.  According to retired Davis police Sergeant Scott Smith, as quoted in the above linked Enterprise article, the UC Davis student-run Ethnic and Cultural Affairs Commission (ECAC) has referred to being a police officer as a “racist career” and “called a bunch of people racists.”  If that is what they said, then yes, the ECAC was out of line. 

But to my mind, the issue isn’t the intentions of Davisites who have used (or who continue to use) the Thin Blue Line imagery in the wake of Officers Corona’s senseless and untimely death.  I imagine that for the vast majority of Davisites, as Smith states,  “The reality is, the Thin Blue Line flag says I support law enforcement.”  And it is fully understandable why Davisites would want to reiterate that support and also use the symbol to express their mourning for Officer Corona.  I suspect that most (maybe even all) have done that without any knowledge of the other meanings of the symbol.

I think the issue is, rather, once you know more about the associations of the symbol and how people perceive it, do you continue to use it?  What do you do once you know that people see that symbol as condoning the disproportionate and unwarranted killing of Black citizens by police?  What do you do when you learn that it has been used by white supremacists?  What do you do once you learn that some people, especially people of color, see that symbol and feel unsafe?  Once you learn that it feels like a stick in the eye, a punch to the gut?

In other words, to me the issue isn’t the original use of the symbol.  To me, the issue is the continued use of the symbol once you know that it has another meaning.

Mourningsymbol
A respectful symbol of mourning

If you say that your intentions are not to invoke white supremacy and the Confederacy, or to condone disproportionate and unwarranted killing of Black citizens, I believe you.  But why continue to use a symbol that some members of this town find hurtful, especially when other symbols are available?  See, for example, the respectful mourning symbol to the left that the Davis Police Department is displaying on its Facebook page.

After all, it is not our intentions that give meaning to symbols.  The meanings are collectively formed.  Our lack of knowledge of a particular meaning doesn’t make that meaning go away.  The confederate flag has meaning; a swastika has meaning.  And these symbols have these meanings even if someone uses them with different intent or doesn’t know about the meanings.  Also, symbols can change meaning over time.  The swastika symbol was originally used as a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions.  So even if the Thin Blue Line imagery wasn’t originally problematic, it has come to have negative associations over time.

Davisites who have objected to these symbols have received death threats.  Smith is quoted as saying that “they brought it on themselves.”  Those are harsh and unsympathetic words for people who were already feeling threatened and who tried, however inaptly, to say so.

Some will say that their timing is the problem and that they should have just waited.  (Some may say the same about this post). But when is the right time to say, much as you are feeling the same pain in losing Officer Corona as everyone else, that you are being told, “no, you are not actually an equally valued member of the community”?  Because that is what people hear when they see that symbol. 

If you read this and still continue to use the symbol, that is of course your choice.  But please understand that your choice is hurting people.  You can say that they shouldn’t feel that way, but the fact is, they do – and not without reason.

I call on Davisites to make a different choice.  There are many other ways to honor Officer Corona that do not use the Thin Blue Line imagery.

Comments

Nancy Price

Thank you , Roberta, for your thoughtful, heartfelt and well-written post.
I have to say that you express so much more eloquently than I could have, my own thoughts on this matter.

Roberta L. Millstein

Thank you, Nancy.

Nora Oldwin

I echo what Nancy wrote. I hope this discussion continues because we need to be having it.. . . . .

Roberta L. Millstein

Thanks, Nora. I agree that we need an ongoing conversation, one in which people aren’t condemned just for daring to ask the question, or dismissed as being politically correct or insuffiently respectful of police.

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