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What’s up with all those flags lining the roads outside of Boston?

If you visited Cape Cod during the tourist season, one of the first things you probably noticed while driving on highways and under overpasses—as well as on bike trails, cars, homes, and businesses—is that blue-stripe flags are taking over.

In the wake of multiple police shootings in Southeastern Mass this year, more and more of these symbols, informally known as “thin blue line” merch, have popped up as citizens seek to signal support for law enforcement officers who they believe are all under attack. Those who disagree beware—a Mashpee man, who allegedly attempted to steal flags from an overpass, was charged with larceny as well as injury to a memorial.

At its most prominent, the meme is seen displayed in front of ice cream shops, car dealerships, and other businesses, from Quincy to Hanover, marking the path of the funeral procession of Michael Chesna, a Weymouth officer who was fatally shot in July. Once only an occasional sighting, these flags, stickers, and other apparel have become increasingly common not just south of Boston, but all across the Commonwealth.

Where did this symbol come from, though? Local coverage of the use (or theft) of flags gives little context of the history or implied meanings, leaving readers in the dark. In one case, the Cape Cod Times described such stolen goods as simply “police-related,” putting the impetus on the reader to figure out what it means.

To help in that regard, here is a brief but detailed history of usage of the symbol and phrase over the last 70 or so years.

Prior to the 20th century, “thin blue line” was mostly used in a strict literal sense, specifically to describe formations of Union troops during the Civil War. The phrase appears to have first been applied to officers outside the military in the 1950s, reportedly by infamous Los Angeles Police Department Chief William H. Parker. A 1992 Los Angeles Times article, written in light of the Rodney King beating, traced the city’s racist and corrupt cop culture back to Parker’s department and “a crisp, militaristic ‘thin blue line’ [Parker coined the phrase] admired and emulated from coast to coast as it struggled valiantly to protect civilized society from godless communists, murderous thugs and the widespread dangers and decay of modern urban life.”

Parker’s proactive approach to policing essentially meant looking for “trouble” and harassing people of color. Later in his tenure as chief, the racial implications of the “us vs them” mentality invoked by the thin blue line metaphor, already clearly understood by those directly impacted by it, became more explicit. During the 1965 Watts rebellion, Parker described residents as behaving “like monkeys in a zoo” and went on television to warn white people that “by 1970, 45 percent of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles will be Negro.” He continued, “If you want any protection for your home and family … you’re going to have to get in and support a strong police department. If you don’t … God help you.”

In time, the idea that the thin blue line protects some and not others spread to departments across the country. A survey of old newspapers reveals that the phrase was predominately used in this way through the ’80s, while also sometimes being deployed to describe queues of cops at police funerals. Notably, in 1981 President Ronald Reagan addressed a gathering of chiefs as “the thin blue line that holds back a jungle that threatens to reclaim the clearing we call civilization.”

The visual symbol—a single blue line over a black background, or in another variation, a monochrome American flag with a single line running across it—appears to have been born in 1993. Blue Line Identifier, a prolific seller of such merchandise and holder of the trademark for the plain blue-on-black version, boasts, “The blue line represents each of us who daily protect this nation. The black background was designed as a constant reminder of our fallen brothers and sisters. Together they symbolize the camaraderie we all share.” (It’s notable that five years earlier, in 1988, documentarian Errol Morris released The Thin Blue Line; in the film, Judge Donald J. Metcalfe, who presided over the trial of a man who was wrongly convicted for killing a cop, claimed to be strongly influenced by how the prosecutor used Parker’s signature metaphor in his argument.)

While there’s no mention of Parker or his separatist perspective on the website for Blue Line Identifier, other retailers are openly inspired. Flags Unlimited, which sells both the classic blue-stripe number and its newer patriotic iteration, marries several possible interpretations in its flag product description [bold emphasis ours]: “The Blue represents the officer … The Black background was designed as a constant reminder of our fallen brother and sister officers. The Line is what police officers protect, the barrier between anarchy and a civilized society, between order and chaos, between respect for decency and lawlessness …

Considering this history, it is likely that a lot of Massachusetts residents and institutions that display the symbol—and also purchase rings fashioned to look like handcuffs, teddy bears that dance and sing the theme to Cops, and blankets that loudly proclaim, “Feel safe at night, sleep with a police officer”—are unaware of underlying meanings and merely want to show appreciation for police in general while honoring those who have been killed in the line of duty. Contacted for this article, a spokesperson for UMass Amherst said that school flies the flag “from the day of an officer’s death to the day of burial,” adding the boilerplate explainer about how “the flag has different meanings for individual officers but generally signifies the camaraderie and teamwork … ”

We also spoke to business owners who display the flag, many of whom said that they have friends or family members serving in local police departments. After learning of the shooting death of Officer Sean Gannon in Yarmouth this year, one proprietor who asked to not be named said that she ordered a flag and encouraged others to do the same. Nearby, a daughter of the owner of another Cape establishment said, “We love police here.”

The whole community, she added, feels “the same way about it.”

This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and published in DigBoston. A version also appeared on the Shoestring.

Brian was born and raised on Cape Cod and now lives in Amherst.

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