It was still there one Tuesday evening in February this year. The following morning, it was gone.
In the top right corner of Salt Lake Community College’s South City security office, a sticker depicting a Thin Blue Line flag had been removed.
The flag has been a divisive emblem since its inception, when it rose to cultural prominence in response to 2014’s anti-police brutality protests. It’s only become further steeped in controversy in recent years as it has been adopted by far-right groups and waved at white supremacy events like 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As far back as the early 1900s, and well before it was converted to flag form, references to the “thin blue line” evoked the idea that police were the lone force separating law-abiding citizens from criminals, illustrated by a blue line bisecting a black rectangle: the line represented the police, and the top and bottom portions represented the good people and the bad, respectively.
While some in the SLCC community regard the flag as a symbol of solidarity with law enforcement, others feel it carries more sinister connotations.
A historical record of police violence against people of color, Glory Johnson-Stanton said, means the Black community “already [has] an uncomfortable view of law enforcement,” and displaying divisive iconography doesn’t help.
“I don’t think [a Black student] would feel comfortable going into that office or being around any of the officers here,” said Johnson-Stanton, the college’s manager of multicultural initiatives.
One law enforcement officer, who would only speak anonymously, said he doesn’t think the flag’s exhibition should interfere with students’ willingness to approach authorities.
“If they want that to get in the way of reporting [an issue], that’s their decision,” he said, noting that it’s important that officers don’t show bias. “Everyone’s got to be able to trust us.”
Shane Crabtree, the school’s executive director of public safety, said the flag’s presence was news to him. While he said he feels the symbol’s initial intention was to honor law enforcement, he acknowledged that this perspective is not universally shared.
“Some people can view it as a symbol that represents law enforcement vs. them,” he said. “I would not authorize any of those [flags] in any of our offices.”
Differences of opinion
In 2014, Andrew Jacob, a white college student at the University of Michigan, had the idea to convert the symbol into flag form to show support for law enforcement as anti-police brutality protests swept the country. Jacob is president of Thin Blue Line USA, an online retailer selling the flags on everything, from Christmas ornaments to face masks and tee shirts to stickers like the one displayed in the South City security office.
Jacob’s company insists the symbol is apolitical and issued a statement on its website in January 2021 denouncing the U.S. Capitol insurrectionists and their brandishing of the flag.
“The Thin Blue Line Flag stands for the sacrifice law enforcement officers of this nation make each day,” the post read. “We reject in the strongest possible terms any association of the flag with racism, hatred, bigotry, and violence. To use it in such a way tarnishes everything it and our nation stands for.”
Still, argued Johnson-Stanton, it’s difficult to believe officers aren’t aware of how many people — African-Americans, in particular — have an entirely different view of what the flag represents.
“Whoever put it up, I believe that they had to know what it meant,” she said.
The campus’s safety supervisor, Kent Oggart, said the symbol represents unity and can mean different things depending whom you ask.
“People can view any symbol however they want to,” said Oggart, who is not a member of law enforcement. “Of course, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Opinions can and do change.”
Johnson-Stanton, however, said she sees the flag as a direct reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The more we talked about our lives mattering, the more it made other people angry,” she said.
The Thin Blue Line flag was a response, she added, to what she feels was a misinterpretation of the social justice campaign.
“[Black Lives Matter] is not about police officers and other people … not mattering,” she said, but rather an attempt to shine a light on the violence Black men and women are suffering at the hands of law enforcement.
Rae Duckworth, the interim director of Black Lives Matter’s Utah chapter, put her distaste for the flag more bluntly.
“That’s an ugly, terrible, divisive symbol,” she said, adding that she feels it was “only created to overshadow the Black Lives Matter movement.”
In Duckworth’s view, the flag’s exhibition at an institution that fosters diversity in education feels like a betrayal.
“The fact that was being showcased is scary,” she said. “I feel fear for those students.”
An emblem commandeered
The Thin Blue Line flag is far from the first symbol to be appropriated by far-right groups and white nationalists. Perhaps the most prominent example of this phenomenon is the swastika, co-opted by the Nazis after millennia of representing a meditation of well-being among Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
More recently, internet meme ‘Pepe the Frog’ saw a rapid transformation from comic book character to alt-right icon. Pepe and his catchphrase, “Feels good, man,” caught on quickly online, with users applying his quote in various – sometimes humorous – contexts. But Pepe’s likeness was soon adopted by far-right factions of the internet and he became associated with white nationalism, ultimately ending up on the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbols database.
As for the Thin Blue Line flag, Kathie Campbell, interim dean of students and assistant vice president of SLCC, said the school didn’t have “any official awareness” that a sticker of the flag was displayed at the South City Campus. While it falls under officers’ First Amendment rights, she said the sticker “would probably not have been up if [school officials] had known it was up.”
Campbell said she recognizes that SLCC is “a microcosm of our surrounding community” and must contend with the various prejudices found in the culture. This is clearly illustrated by the recent discovery of the letters ‘KKK’ written on a school whiteboard and the racist interruptions of virtual school events a year ago.
The Utah Highway Patrol handles police services at SLCC’s South City, Taylorsville and Jordan campuses. Sgt. Cameron Roden, the agency’s public information officer, said troopers have met with student groups to “open up avenues of conversation [and] make inroads so that everybody feels like they can come to law enforcement there at the college.”
Peter Moosman, coordinator at SLCC’s Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center, confirmed the school’s safety office has made efforts in recent years to mend its relationship with “communities that have a historical mistrust or a negative history with law enforcement.”
Even so, Moosman added, there have been hiccups along the way, and students who don’t feel comfortable reaching out to campus law enforcement would be even less inclined to do so upon seeing the display of iconography with racist associations.
Dr. Deidre Tyler, professor of sociology at SLCC, said one person’s interpretation of a symbol like the Thin Blue Line flag may vary drastically from another’s and “depends on who you are and your experiences.”
Tyler, who is Black, worked alongside law enforcement as a social worker in Mississippi and said she found it to be a largely positive experience. But times and attitudes have changed so much, Tyler said, she finds it hard to put herself in the mindset of a current college student.
“What one thing means to [a 62-year-old] can mean something totally different to a 19-year-old,” she said. “We’re so different in how we perceive things.”
Such vast differences of opinion — whether informed by age, experience, or identity — contribute to a culture increasingly marked by disagreement and division, suggested Tyler.
“Will it change?” she wondered. “Your guess is as good as mine.”