In late October, then-President Donald Trump — in the midst of a scorched Earth re-election campaign that touted a pro-law enforcement message and painted him as the candidate of “law and order,” — appeared at a rally in Waukesha.
Trump arrived in southern Wisconsin two months after a white Kenosha cop had shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in the back, sparking a renewed round of protests for racial justice in Wisconsin and across the country.
Yet during this appearance, Trump, the 45th President of the United States, was not standing in front of an American flag. Behind Trump, hanging from two construction cranes, was a massive pro-police thin blue line flag.
Months later, on Jan. 6, a crowd of violent insurrectionists descended on the U.S. Capitol — spurred on by the president’s rhetoric, tweets and orders to alter the election results by carrying out a coup attempt. In the mayhem, one Capitol police officer was killed and dozens more were injured.
Police officers were brutalized by people carrying the thin blue line pro-police flag who in some cases used the flag poles themselves as a weapon, videos showed. Among the throngs of angry QAnon followers, militia members and other various flavors of Trump supporters were off-duty cops from across the country.
The flag, a black and white American flag with one blue stripe, gained prominence after the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014. But the phrase “thin blue line,” has been around for nearly a century.
The blue line represents the division between societal chaos and order, with cops at the center holding back the forces of evil.
Even without the newfound political connotations, the idea that the police are the only thing standing in the way of society decay, can be unhelpful, according to Ion Meyn, a criminal justice professor at the UW-Madison Law School
“It very much puts police on the side of an ideology that might be very, very exclusionary and dangerous to significant groups in the United States who deserve their protection,” Meyn says. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for police to take that stance.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has grown in response to the continued killing of Black people by police officers and the flag’s use has grown alongside as a blue lives matter backlash movement spread.
The flag was prominently flown alongside tiki torches and other symbols of hate at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“There’s no question that this flag’s political meaning in the Trump era has come to be a direct response to Black Lives Matter and an interpretation of Black Lives Matter,” says Steve Kantrowitz, a UW-Madison historian who studies white supremacy. “So, in this way the thin blue line flag kind of steps into the role played by the Confederate battle flag over the past 70 years or so.”
The flag’s use as a pro-cop cudgel culminated last summer, when a large and multicultural group of protesters responded to the killing of George Floyd, saying with a collective voice nationwide that cops should stop shooting, choking, kneeling on and harassing people of color.
The protests furthered Trump’s embrace of the pro-police flag, and abdication of the stars and stripes, supercharged the political meaning. Then on Jan. 6, the people yelling that blue lives matter killed a police officer as they tried to overturn the results of the presidential election.
But the flag is likely here to stay as a symbol of the conservative movement and its white backlash politics.
“Especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 riots and insurrection, that’s an important moment to say hold on, who’s really interested in law and order?” says Nolan Bennett, a political science professor at UW-Green Bay. “I don’t think that’s going to go away, the flag’s not going to go away and probably it will be affiliated with whoever the next kingmaker of the Republican party is.”
In Wisconsin law enforcement, it appears that the flag is still seen as a symbol of solidarity and strength for the profession. Some agencies, like the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, stick thin blue line decals on squad cars. Democratic Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul posted a picture of the flag on Jan. 9 for Law Enforcement Appreciation Day in a since-deleted tweet. The University of Wisconsin Police Department was hit with criticism from parts of the school’s student body after it posted a tweet in which the flag was seen hanging on the wall in the background of a photo.
We broke up a theft ring this weekend that clearly had a faulty exit strategy.
This is what happens when you and your roommate attempt to “collect” an exit sign from each residence hall over the last two nights.
Please don’t steal exit signs. Or anything. pic.twitter.com/vPPSvVDhTH
— UW-Madison Police (@UWMadisonPolice) November 15, 2020
“The blue line flag has long been a symbol of solidarity and pride within the law enforcement community, so much so that it has become a common ceremonial feature at events memorializing fallen officers,” says Jim Palmer, president of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. “Regrettably, in the last year we have seen that symbol hijacked and misappropriated by groups with a disingenuous political agenda that bears no resemblance to the professional calling that the flag is meant to embody, and the violent siege at the U.S. Capitol provided the best evidence of that.”
In mid-November 2020, as UWPD was responding to criticism from students over its use of the flag, Chief Kristen Roman defended the symbol — adding the flag in the UWPD office was a gift from a community member — while acknowledging its complicated history.
“To many within and outside of the police profession, [the flag] symbolizes a commitment to public service and the countless selfless sacrifices willingly made to honor that commitment, up to and including laying down one’s own life to protect the lives of others,” Roman said in a statement. “But like many things in our society, we understand the imagery of the thin blue line has evolved to mean different things to different people. Sentiments about the imagery range from neutral to denoting professional pride to expressing support for law enforcement to highlighting a toxic ‘us vs. them’ law enforcement culture informed by hate.
“This is particularly true today when the imagery has, in some cases, been co-opted to denote support of white supremacist ideologies, shirk police accountability, or otherwise dishonor the police profession,” she continued.
But the photo was posted as the campus police department was responding to calls for change from UW students — partially stemming from the department’s role in tamping down protests for racial justice in Madison last summer. Students, according to the Daily Cardinal, see the department’s social media use as an extension of its tarnished relationship with those it is charged with protecting.
Then, on Jan. 26, UWPD released new guidelines for displaying the flag to “to distance UWPD from the thin blue line imagery and the fear and mistrust that it currently evokes for too many in our community.”
Displays of the symbol will not be allowed within the department on “flags, pins, bracelets, notebooks, coffee mugs, decals, etc.” Roman will approve use of the flag on a case-by-case basis in instances such as an officer dying on duty. Similarly, UWPD officers with tattoos of the flag won’t need to cover the image.
“The balance has tipped, and we must consider the cost of clinging to a symbol that is undeniably and inextricably linked to actions and beliefs antithetical to UWPD’s values,” Roman wrote in the guidelines, which were initially written as an email to UWPD staff.
But even as she ended the flag’s use in her department, Roman denied the meaning that students insisted the flag held.
“My intent is not that we reject outright the symbol for what we understand it to represent, nor do I believe it to be inherently racist/fascist as many purport,” she said. “Instead, my intent is to be reasonably responsive to its detrimental impact on many in our community for whom the visible symbol holds a very different meaning.”
Yet not all people in the law enforcement community see the flag as an important symbol of the profession. Randy Shrewsberry, a former cop who now works to reform policing as executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, says agencies should forbid its use.
“To start, I loathe these flags,” Shrewsberry says. “I don’t like what they originally represented, and I certainly have disdain for what they’ve become to characterize. The idea of the “thin blue line” is ridiculous, in my view, and adds to the false notion that the police are the fabric of what holds society together.
“I think the flag, or symbol, has become the representative of the absurd ‘Blue Lives Matter’ chant – which is a racist trope that attempts to water down the importance of the Black Lives Matter campaign.”