A contingent of people marched last Friday along Chardon Square to rally in support of law enforcement a week after a Chardon High School football player took to the field carrying a Blue Lives Matter flag during the home opener, touching off a local controversy.
Black-and-blue pinstriped flags fluttered in the breeze, including one suspended 100 feet in the air from a tree maintenance truck, as people, some pushing strollers with young children, walked and chanted “blue lives matter.”
Some carried the U.S. flag while others toted the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Many wore motorcycle jackets or military gear, but very few, if any, were wearing face masks recommended by health officials during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“These guys are not going to stop,” Geauga County Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri told the Times on Monday. “Their display of support was also a voice of change that they agree with the fact that the [Chardon schools] Superintendent [Michael P. Hanlon Jr.] should step down, and I believe that there is going to be an action that they’re going to start to take, also, toward the board.”
Since last week, Mr. Spidalieri has been calling for Dr. Hanlon to resign in response to the superintendent’s message to the community after the initial football pregame flag event saying the Blue Lives Matter flag could be interpreted as a racially-motivated and political symbol.
“There are a couple of attorneys that have approached me and a couple of the other voices in the community to pursue some form of legal position,” Mr. Spidalieri also said. “I just think that this could all be avoided if the right decisions are made for the superintendent to step down.”
Dr. Hanlon told the Times on Tuesday morning that he thought the general public had misinterpreted his words and actions last week, with some incorrectly stating that the district had banned the flag outright.
“As reinforced repeatedly last week, this had nothing to do with our district’s unwavering support and appreciation for police and first responders,” Dr. Hanlon said. “We did not ban the Thin Blue Line flag – or any flag. People at Friday’s game had flags in the stands, including Thin Blue Line Flags,” he said of the Sept. 4 game.
“What the district enforced was its existing board policy – common to most school districts and public bodies – that governs staff participating in perceived political activity.”
Officials have pointed out that although the Blue Lives Matter flag was started in 2014 in support of New York City police officers, it has taken on another meaning as white supremacist groups began carrying the flag during their rallies.
Some at the Sept. 4 rally said they were there to support police and ensure their children have a voice.
Not everyone who came out last Friday in support of officers was calling for the Chardon superintendent’s resignation, however.
“He has to be responsible to a lot of people in a lot of areas,” said Burton Township resident Jimmye Ardo, whose husband served as an officer with the Cleveland Heights Police Department for 40 years. She said the purpose of events like Friday’s rally were to uphold people and values, not to put anyone down or cause disharmony.
Only a few counter-protestors showed up. A group of six younger area residents came bearing “Black Lives Matter” flags, one of the few differing statements in a sea of blue. They explained that they were there to educate people about alternative possibilities to America’s current law enforcement system. They favored a different policing system where social workers would be used to de-escalate situations such as domestic violence.
These counter-protestors who didn’t want to share their names, were met with opposing cries of “Burn, loot, murder,” decrying their Black Lives Matter posters, from other crowd members, many of whom were more than twice their age. Others told them to move out of their parents’ basements and get a job.
Dr. Hanlon said that he walked around the rally for a bit and interacted with a number of people.
“I found them to be positive and respectful and they expressed their appreciation for the work of law enforcement, which we fully support,” he said. “I was very proud of how our students, parents and community responded on Friday.”
Chardon High School alumna Julia Manring initially proposed a larger Black Lives Matter protest to counter the Blue Line rally, but said she decided to cancel the Facebook event out of respect following the shooting and killing of Det. James Skernivitz in Cleveland and the suicide of Officer Nicholas Sable on Thursday evening.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that Chardon is a largely white community,” Ms. Manring explained on a phone call on Friday. “There was never an impetus to discuss diversity in Chardon.”
The Sept. 4 protest started in Chardon Square before moving down North Street and Chardon Avenue to reach the high school, where they gathered in the front lawn to listen to a few speakers as the game’s opening ceremonies took place a few hundred feet away. The moment of silence for the fallen officers was drowned out by the Chardon Hilltopper Marching Band playing with bravado.
At the field, area residents Fred and Jennette Schmidt said they were there to back police officers. “Both of us here are older and remember how to protest,” Mr. Schmidt said. “The stuff that happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we’ve seen those things and remember how you’re supposed to protest properly. So we just want to be peaceful and show up for what we believe in.”
He added that high school is the perfect time to introduce important issues to students, so long as they’re given all the information.
“The thing is, they have to be able to hear both sides and it’s hard with how some of the things are,” he continued. “But if they’re able to see both sides they can make a decision on what they believe in and why they stand for.”
The crowd eventually made its way back to the Square around 7:30 p.m., about two hours after everyone had first convened.
“I was there with the city manager and five other council members,” Chardon Mayor Daniel Meleski said on Monday. “We were very grateful that the rally went very peacefully and people were able to express their First Amendment rights. I met with Chief [Scott] Niehus and the lieutenant Thursday afternoon to try and understand their plans for security.”
Chief Niehus said the police department was prepared for the size and scope of the event. “Our overarching goal was to protect the rights of persons to protest as well as the rights of folks who were there to rally. We wanted to be able to make sure people can do that safely,” the chief said.
Mayor Meleski said that it’s up to people to decide whether the Thin Blue Line flag is political or not. Some residents think it is because it’s been associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement, which was launched to counter Black Lives Matter, and has been flown by white supremacist groups at rallies like the 2017 Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Others, however, feel as though the flag shouldn’t be considered political because the police as a law enforcement agency are separate from government.
Mr. Spidalieri said the flag doesn’t have any political implication. “All that symbol is is a remembrance of our fallen officers that died protecting us and for the men and women putting their uniform on every day that put their lives on the line for us,” Mr. Spidalieri said. “It’s no different than a POW flag.”
Dr. Hanlon said that it’s his position that students should be allowed to express their opinions, and that his response was not meant to stifle students from speaking their minds.
“Because the Thin Blue Line flag was displayed as part of a pre-game ceremony under the supervision of school staff, it was perceived by some members of the community as political speech sanctioned by the school district,” he said. “Our intent has always been to strive to apply this policy fairly and equitably to all issues and political views.
“Our objective is to create a supportive and inclusive setting in our schools for students and staff. The district will continue to explore all options available to ensure that occurs.”