Barring Of 'Thin Blue Line' Flag Display Stirs Controversy In Montgomery County The flag, which shows a thin blue stripe in place of one of the flag's 13 red stripes, is meant to show support for law enforcement — but it has been associated, at times, with white nationalists.
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NPR logo Barring Of 'Thin Blue Line' Flag Display Stirs Controversy In Montgomery County

Barring Of 'Thin Blue Line' Flag Display Stirs Controversy In Montgomery County

The flag, pictured as a billboard along US Route 10 in Dilworth, Minn., has been used in association with the Blue Lives Matter movement, a pro-police group formed in response to Black Lives Matter and its protests against police violence toward black people. Tony Webster/Flickr hide caption

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Tony Webster/Flickr

Dispute is growing over the display of a "thin blue line" flag in Montgomery County this week after county officials said the flag would not be placed in any public space at the police department.

The controversy comes after a local man and his son donated a handmade wooden American flag to a Germantown police station last week to recognize National First Responders Day. The flag, which shows a thin blue stripe in place of one of the flag's standard 13 red stripes, is meant to show support for law enforcement — but the "thin blue line" flag also has been associated, at times, with white nationalists.

Montgomery County police said on Twitter last week that the flag, donated by James Shelton, would be displayed in the 5th District station.

The announcement prompted immediate pushback from residents who said the flag excuses police violence against black residents, and who pointed out that the flag was seen alongside Confederate flags at the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

The flag has been used in association with the Blue Lives Matter movement, a pro-police group formed in response to Black Lives Matter and its protests against police violence toward black people.

Two days after police announced the flag would be displayed on station property, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the flag would not be on view to the public.

"The flag provides a symbol of support to some but it is a symbol of dismissiveness to others," he said in a statement. "Under my administration, we are committed to improving police relations with the community and will immediately address any action that stands against our mission."

Elrich's decision drew decidedly mixed responses from the public.

Maryland Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) backed Elrich's move, writing on Twitter: "This is not the American flag. It's a violation of the flag code that prohibits altering of the flag in this manner & an affront to the #BlackLivesMatter protests that I & others were a part of. Stop pandering & focus on police reform!"

But the county executive's move raised alarm bells from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who called the decision "outrageous and unconscionable." Hogan tweeted a photo of himself in front of two thin blue line flags, writing, "We are proud to hang these Thin Blue Line flags in Government House to honor our brave law enforcement officers."

Hogan's remarks echoed those by the police union, Montgomery County FOP Lodge 35, which said county police officers were "highly offended" by Elrich's decision.

"The working police officers of Montgomery County are highly offended by this act of outright disrespect for them and that flag which represents the sacrifices and dedication of police officers who daily risk their lives, health, limbs and own well-being in service to their community," the union said in a statement.

Vexillologist Jack Lowe, who studies the history and symbolism of flags, said the controversy over the flag comes down to a question of whether the thin blue line flag is the American flag — or whether it simply resembles it.

Lowe said there are two schools of thought: "If it looks like [the American flag] and you change elements of it, then that is defacing. Others say 'No, because it's not the American flag, it resembles it.' This is not defacing, this is modification."

But Lowe acknowledged that the meaning of flags can shift over centuries. So while the flag may be intended to memorialize fallen law enforcement officers, "people use symbols for their own purposes," he said. "There's nothing inherently bad about the black and white flag with the thin blue line, it's just a symbol, and the interpretation of the symbol may change over time."

Elrich's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This story was updated at 3:09 p.m. to include reporting from Dominique Maria Bonessi.

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