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    Friday, July 19, 2024

    A divisive symbol? There's a debate over the 'thin blue line' flag in Connecticut, the U.S.

    In Connecticut and around the nation, citizens, public officials, and police have widely varied views on what exactly the "thin blue line" flag stands for. Many see it as a a symbol of honor and sacrifice, while others go so far as to call it hateful.

    Wethersfield's Democratic-majority Town Council last week rejected a request to fly the flag at Town Hall to recognize the death of state Trooper First Class Aaron Pelletier, who police say was struck and killed May 30 by a drug-addled pickup truck driver as the trooper conducted a traffic stop on Interstate 84 in Southington.

    The divide over the flag's meaning has fallen largely along political lines.

    "What's transpired in Wethersfield is, unfortunately, emblematic of the ideological virus that has infected a Connecticut Democrat Party that almost revels in its contempt for law enforcement," House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, a Republican, said.

    "Local Democrats' decision against flying the 'thin blue line' flag in honor of a brave trooper who tragically lost his life in the line of duty is bad enough, but this rant from an elected official the same week of Trooper First Class Pelletier's funeral wasn't just offensive — it was stupid," Candelora said, referring to remarks by Wethersfield Democratic council member Emily Zambrello.

    "It represents racism and antagonism to many, many people, and if you don't personally believe that, and you fly it at your own house and you think it means something to you, that is much more positive," Zambrello told WTNH-TV. "It's just not how many people feel about it. It's not appropriate to raise it over our Town Hall, especially when our flag policy prohibits us from doing anything associated with hate."

    House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, a Democrat from East Hartford, called comments from both sides of the aisle "divisive."

    "Our collective focus should be on honoring TFC Pelletier's service to the state and how we can best support his wife and children during this tragic time for their family, friends, and community," Rojas said. "I will not contribute to the divisiveness caused by comments made in Wethersfield regarding the meaning of the flag, or by Rep. Candelora's crude politicization of this situation. Both have done a disservice during this time of loss."

    Bristol residents waved and displayed the "thin blue line" flag outside their homes after two officers were ambushed and killed in 2022. But those who want to raise the flag in the public square have run into opposition in several towns, based on either ideology, public policy or both.

    In 2021, Manchester police took down a "thin blue line" flag outside the station to comply with a new town policy. Protesters had demanded that the flag be removed, characterizing it a racist response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Flags not allowed under the town's policy included banners "of a particular religious movement or creed," political party flags and flags "that enable violence, discrimination, prejudice, or racism."

    That same year, South Windsor's Town Council rejected a request to fly the flag after the police chief wrote that the banner "could be upsetting" to some residents and the display "could have several unintended consequences."

    "Our goal, day in and day out, is to maintain peace and harmony within the community," Police Chief Kristian R. Lindstrom wrote in a letter to the council.

    Middletown and Windham also have removed the flag at the urging of activists and the public.

    The banner ostensibly stands for solidarity with law enforcement. Its roots date to the beginning of the Blue Lives Matter movement, a counter of sorts to the Black Lives Matter initiative. The flag, however, also has been associated with white supremacists who carried the banner alongside Confederate and Nazi flags at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Va. Also, some people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were seen carrying the flag.

    "We reject, in the strongest possible terms, any association of our flag with racism, hatred, and bigotry," Thin Blue Line USA, a company that makes the flags, said in a written statement. "To use it in such a way tarnishes what it and our nation believe in."

    Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, recently ordered the flag to be raised at the state Capitol in recognition of Police Week in the state, and city officials in Racine, Wisconsin, approved a resolution to fly the banner at City Hall below the American flag on June 17, the fifth anniversary of the fatal shooting of a local police officer who tried to stop an armed robbery while off-duty.

    Officials in Merriam, Kan., however, recently decided to remove "thin blue line" flags from a public area. The thinking behind the decision, according to a local news report, was that a city-sponsored event ought to be mindful of any ambiguous messaging, whether intentional.

    Windsor Locks police Lt. Paul Cherniack, a former Hartford police officer and 40-year law enforcement veteran, said police officers see solidarity, compassion, and dedication to duty in the flag.

    "We also see it as inclusive because our rank and file is inclusive," Cherniack said. "It has nothing to do with divisive energy at all."

    The renewed controversy comes at a time when disputes over other flags also have been in the news, including the "Appeal to Heaven" flag, which flew over Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s New Jersey vacation home. Commissioned by George Washington during the Revolutionary War and based on the writing of philosopher John Locke, the flag also has become a rallying symbol for conservative Christians.

    The discussion leading up to Manchester's flag policy started after the Pride flag honoring the LGBTQ+ community was raised on the pole at Center and Main streets, usually reserved for the town flag. Earlier this year, Enfield changed its flag policy, ending its custom of raising the Pride flag outside of Town Hall and causing many in the LGBTQ+ community to protest. Darien may soon reconsider its policy to fly the Pride flag and other nongovernmental flags at Town Hall. Its three-flag policy (U.S., Connecticut, and town flags) was adopted two years ago.

    A federal judge last year ruled that a Pennsylvania community's prohibition on the "thin blue line flag" on all township property was unconstitutional. Officials in Springfield Township said the flag, which the police union used on its logo, fostered discontent and distrust of police. But U.S. District Judge Karen Marston found the prohibition violated public employees' free speech right.

    "The Township repeatedly suggests that the Thin Blue Line American Flag is of limited, if any, public value or concern because it is 'offensive' and 'racist,'" Marston wrote. "But as this Court previously told the Township, 'the First Amendment protects speech even when it is considered 'offensive.'"

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