The Chardon High School football team ran onto the field last week with one player waving a Blue Lives Matter flag. The student’s show of support for law enforcement officers touched off a firestorm of reactions across social media and Geauga County that ranged from measured, thoughtful comments to outrage – on both sides.
There was outrage that the blue line flag, perceived as political, was displayed at a school event, and outrage about the outrage. One Facebook commenter took down her objections to the thin blue line flag after receiving death threats. That is outrageous in a country that covets free speech.
What makes this flag so controversial? Blue Lives Matter surfaced in 2014 after the killings of two New York City police officers to counter any negative comments against law enforcement officers.
As protesters began taking to the streets in cities and towns across the nation, this flag became both a symbol of professional pride for police and a symbol of racism after it was openly carried by white supremacists during rallies including the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
Protests and violence across our country, including marches this past weekend in Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin, have heightened emotions as citizens rally for an end to racial discrimination and a push for social justice. Also, this past weekend, there was a small rally in Chagrin Falls on Sunday showing support for Black Lives Matter. Later, a video went viral among Kenston High students showing someone burning a BLM support sign.
In a statement to the community, Chardon Superintendent Michael Hanlon said the student’s motivation behind carrying the flag was not political, but rather a show of support for a coach who is a police officer. The superintendent noted the close relationship the school district has with officers, especially since the 2012 tragedy that took the lives of three students. Dr. Hanlon said the next step is to hire a diversity consultant for advice on where to go from here.
That is a prudent plan of action.
But the reaction from Geauga County Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri during a commissioners’ meeting was totally out of line when he called for Dr. Hanlon to step down, claiming the superintendent lacks “compassion, understanding and leadership quality.” While Mr. Spidalieri has every right to voice his opinion, doing so at a public meeting in his role as an elected official not connected with the school board is inappropriate and counterproductive. Chardon BOE member Keith Brewster appropriately stood squarely behind Dr. Hanlon.
We were surprised that the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office replaced an image of Chardon Square on its Facebook page with a photo of a Blue Lives Matter flag. Should this office in charge of investigating a range of cases engage in a political debate?
A voice of calm and reason came from Chardon Police Chief William Scott Niehus who issued a statement saying his department has a special relationship with the schools, including the administration and students. He pointed out that the thin blue line flag “represents either the best of or worst of what our profession has to offer depending on a person’s point of view” based on their “unique experiences with law enforcement.” He emphasized that the department will continue to equally serve all persons because, “that’s who we are, and that’s what our community expects of us.”
His words give us confidence in the local police force.
All this talk about social justice, racism and supporting law enforcement officers is happening because we have the First Amendment that guarantees the right to free speech. Sometimes we have no intention of starting a controversy that leads to people being threatened. With a diversity of views, that’s bound to happen. We should work on making our disagreements civil and focus on beneficial discussions that lead to solutions rather than discord.