by Rev. Weldon McWilliams, Associate Minister, First Baptist Church of Spring Valley, NY
Nyack, NY held its annual African-American Day parade earlier this month. The purpose of the parade is to celebrate a people and a culture that despite many obstacles continues to persevere and make significant contributions. Typically, this celebration of black culture goes on without a hitch. However, the June 3, 2017 parade would be different than past parades.
According to the event organizers, this year a few people came to the parade who weren’t invited. They posed as vendors, however, they didn’t pre-register with parade organizers as did the other vendors who sold merchandise at the parade. These men walked along the parade route pushing carts that contained “Blue Lives Matter” flags, provoking both parade watchers and participants. Later that day, Nyack’s Mayor Jen Laird White wrote about the flags they were carrying in a Facebook post:
“It was a provocative and angry gesture, it was neither in the spirit of the parade nor the community we live in. We are a nation deeply divided right now and what these men and their pitiful display of flags indicated today is that in they are not only small and petty, but childish and embarrassing.”
Mayor White might have expected to get some criticism for her Facebook remarks, but she didn’t expect to get it from another elected official who was also marching that day. Rockland County Executive Ed Day, who is running for re-election this fall, responded to Mayor White’s comments with a Facebook post of his own.
“While I respect Mayor White, I believe she was way out of bounds with this post. The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag was a U.S. Flag with one blue line through it. Our Flag is now a ‘provocative and angry’ gesture? Seriously? …The day we ascribe ‘divisiveness and provocation’ to the notion that the lives of the guardians of our society- our cops- matters, we may as well roll up the tent as anarchy will prevail.”
When I initially read Mr. Day’s post, I was shocked that he would respond in this manner. His first line, “As a former law enforcement officer…” made it clear that he wasn’t going to be objective. Later in the post he referred to the Blue Lives Matter flag as “our flag.”
It was disturbing to see that he really didn’t understand how bringing a “Blue Lives Matter” flag to an African American event would be interpreted as being provocative. BLUE Lives Matter was founded as a reactionary response to the BLACK Lives Matter movement.
Inspired by a 2014 social media hashtag following the murder of Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter demanded that this nation look at how law enforcement interacts with people of color. It was a response to the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Sandra Bland, all of whom have either died at the hands of law enforcement or while in custody.
Black Lives Matter called for the end of racist institutional policies that led to black and brown men, women and children being unfairly targeted by police.
However, some members of the law enforcement community took the call for re-evaluation personally. Black Lives Matter supporters were seen by some as opponents of law enforcement. With right wing media outlets whipping up a frenzy of resentment, Black Lives Matter was seen not as an affirmation that people of color should be treated fairly, but as simply being anti-police.
If one can not understand how displaying and promoting a Blue Lives Matter flag can be interpreted as provocative at an African-American Day parade, then one must not have any idea about the tense and tumultuous history between law enforcement and the black community. This history goes back as far as the days of enslavement and the establishment of slave patrols. During the times of Reconstruction, vagrancy laws were created that unfairly targeted unemployed black men, placed them in prison, and then leased these men out to white businesses for cheap labor (the Convict-Leasing System). During the times of Jim Crow, members of law enforcement were often also members of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council.
Rockland County has had its share of discord between the police and the African American community. Recently there were allegations of a local police department performing illegal criminal background checks on members of a predominately African American grassroots organization. In 2011 a Haitian man was shot and killed by an officer of another local police department.
There’s more than enough history to make it obvious why the appearance of a Blue Lives Matter flag at an African American Day parade could provoke feelings of anger and create an uncomfortable environment.
Yet, there is another problem with having a Blue Lives Matter flag at an African American Day parade. Symbols matter. And so do words.
Blue Lives Matter, created as a response to Black Lives Matter, is an effort to de-legitimize the change that Black Lives Matter movement has demanded.
Mr. Day wrote that the Blue Lives Matter flag is “…a U.S. Flag with one blue line through it.” Although it may be patterned after the U.S. flag, it is NOT the US flag. It conveys something different. From its origin, the Blue Lives Matter flag was not inclusive but exclusive. It was created with the intention of shutting out people who supported Black Lives Matter. The two flags could never be interchangeable.
Changing the “black” to “blue” in the name increases the tension between the two communities. We need to acknowledge, not ignore, the historically unfair treatment of people of color. Changing the “black” to “blue” doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to find common ground and improve relations. Instead, it belittles the calls to acknowledge that black lives do matter.
I applaud Mayor White for acknowledging that some parade participants and spectators felt uneasy about seeing a Blue Lives Matter flag. Her comments displayed sensitivity and understanding — qualities all public servants should possess. Day’s comments, in contrast to the mayor’s remarks, were inappropriate. They suggest a lack of understanding that turned a blind eye to the events that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
If we are ever going to get to a point where law enforcement and communities of color can consistently engage in ways that are not detrimental, it will take regular dialogue, critical thought and meaningful progressive action. That is the only way systematic institutional biases within our institutions can be eradicated.
Rev. Weldon McWilliams is an Associate minister at the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley, NY and an Assistant Professor of History at Dutchess Community College of Poughkeepsie, NY. He is an organizer, a community activist and a member of the NAACP, Black Lives Matter –Lower Hudson Valley Chapter and We The People.