Corvallis resident Heather Brown said she’s grown tired of the violence she's seen toward police during recent Black Lives Matter-fueled protests.
“What happened to George Floyd was absolutely wrong — 100%. A lot of it is wrong,” said Brown, who is white. But, she added, "All the violence that has been going on toward all police right now across the world has been rough to see.”
So she organized a pro-police “Thin Blue Line” rally in front of the Benton County Courthouse Friday afternoon.
Brown’s rally attracted about two dozen mid-valley residents in support of the Thin Blue Line. It also attracted over a dozen BLM demonstrators — many of whom set out to explain the tumultuous history of the Thin Blue Line’s symbolism as it relates to the modern civil rights movement.
"I don't have anything against peaceful protests — by God, that's their right," said Thin Blue Line protester Michael Priest. "But the BLM leaders want to burn down the system and build their own."
With origins tracing back to a British Army formation during the Crimean War, "thin line" phrasing nowadays uses varying colors to represent public servants performing dangerous jobs.
The “thin blue line” is a phrase common among law enforcement officials. It implies that policing is what protects the public from descending into chaos. In the U.S., the thin blue line is typically illustrated as a flag that resembles Old Glory — except it is black and white with a blue line replacing the eighth stripe from the top.
The idea of a blue line was popularized in the 1950s by then-Los Angeles Police Department Chief William H. Parker. He touted it in an attempt to clean up the LAPD’s reputation of corruption and police brutality. At the same time, though, he was increasing policing in Black and Latin American neighborhoods as a way of ensuring the “protection” of white families.
Rather than stimulating businesses and industries, a major trend back then was to ramp up policing, according to Oregon State University ethnic studies professor Robert Thompson. That gave minorities, who were already oppressed and underemployed, no way out of their socioeconomic class, no way out of their neighborhoods and therefore no way out from under the microscope of police.
There is a colonialist methodology at the origin of policing, Thompson said: A select group of white people were entrusted to protect other white people’s property, which included enslaved Black people and land stolen from Native Americans.
“The police historically in this country have been used before … to protect the property of those who own the country,” Thompson, who is Black, said. But “they (had) no rightful ownership to the land, not to mention they have no ownership of the people.”
Since its inception in 2014, Blue Lives Matter proponents have used the Thin Blue Line flag, along with other controversial logos.
Brown insisted that her rally had nothing to do with Blue Lives Matter.
“I made it very clear that it’s ‘Thin Blue Line,’” she said. “That’s what (police) use to say they’re family. It definitely is not a Blue Lives Matter type of thing.”
However, the Thin Blue Line flag is widely considered to be a divisive symbol due to Blue Lives Matter’s origins as a countermovement to Black Lives Matter.
Blue Lives Matter emerged after the 2014 murder of two police officers in New York City by a Black man as retribution for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, respectively. Brown and Garner’s deaths that year — like George Floyd’s Minneapolis death this year — sparked Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide.
A major criticism of the Blue Lives Matter countermovement is that it equates the significance of one's job (something that can be chosen and could change) to one's racial identity (something assigned and permanent).
“There are Black officers and, even though they put on that uniform, that uniform doesn’t make them any less human,” Brown said. “That job is difficult.”
Thompson, who specializes in race theory and the prison-industrial complex, said that argument doesn’t matter much because the officers still belong to an institution built on racism.
“If you take that identity on, it comes with all the history and pitfalls and dangers and responses,” Thompson said. “I don’t make any distinction between white and Black cops. Their training is the same.”
Although she did concede that a person’s race is of a heavier weight than their career, Brown said she still didn’t want her rally to be seen as anti-BLM.
“It’s not their skin,” Brown said. “Police officers do choose their career, but … it’s to help people. I definitely did not want (the rally) to be a counteract."
However, Brown also blamed recent riots across the nation on the BLM movement.
“I feel like it started out as a really good cause,” she said. “A lot of people have taken it to use for violence.”
Brown, who has no personal ties to law enforcement, said “it’s heartbreaking” to see advocates for police reform also calling police “pigs” or other names, demanding less funding for their departments and otherwise “demonizing” them.
“My biggest thing is that, yes, I’m tired of seeing all the attacks on both ends,” Brown said. “I don’t want to bash the (BLM) movement. I just feel like there are people who do awful things in the movement’s name. I want everybody to feel like they’re loved.”
The Thin Blue Line flag has been associated with outright racism in recent years.
It was flown by neo-nazis at the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally was held in response to the decision by Charlottesville officials to remove Confederate monuments and memorials from public spaces — a decision made at the behest of civil rights advocates, including those from the BLM movement. The event now lives in infamy because an avowed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a BLM advocate and injuring others.
A week after the rally, Thin Blue Line USA — a retailer that sells Thin Blue Line flag merchandise and fundraises for the families of slain police officers — rejected the use of the flag by ideologically racist groups.
The association of the Thin Blue Line flag with racism rippled all the way West, too. Another week after the rally, in response to complaints by a county commissioner, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese announced that a Thin Blue Line flag that had been on display in a break room of the county courthouse was taken down.
Still, Brown insisted, the Thin Blue Line flag is worth more than its reputation.
“It’s for fallen officers,” she said. “Family members get it just to show support. The meaning gets lost in the words people choose to use.”
In May, the FBI reported that 48 law enforcement officers nationwide died in 2019 as a result of a felonious act committed by a citizen while on duty. Of those officers, 40 were white and seven were Black.
In the last 12 months, according to data gathered by the Washington Post, over 1,000 people were killed by police — 25% of whom were Black people, even though Black people make up around 13% of the total U.S. population.
The rate at which Black citizens are killed by police officers is greater than the rate at which officers are killed by any citizen. But, Brown said, law enforcement officials should still be evaluated as “good” or “bad” individually.
“I’ve never viewed people as Black and white, only humans,” she said. “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind. That’s how I was raised.”
Thompson said this type of outlook only emphasizes that there is an “unwillingness” to empathize with Black people.
“There can be a lot of rage and anger and righteousness directed at police,” he said. “(But) they have all the power. Racism enshrines it. I think it’s time to be bold and unapologetic about it.”
The Corvallis Police Department declined to comment aside from affirming in an email to the Gazette-Times its support of community members peacefully using their rights to free speech and assembly.
Reporter Nia Tariq can be reached at email@example.com.
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