This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.
It was a small sticker, a black-and-white image of an American flag with a single stripe, colored blue.
One Tuesday evening in February, it was on display in the top right corner of the window for Salt Lake Community College’s South City security office. By Wednesday morning, the sticker was gone.
The flag image, usually called the Thin Blue Line flag, is seen by some as a symbol of solidarity with law enforcement — and by others, particularly African Americans, a divisive icon.
The image rose to cultural prominence in response to protests against police brutality in 2014 — reinforcing “an uncomfortable view of law enforcement” held by many in the Black community because of America’s history of police violence against people of color, said Glory Johnson-Stanton, SLCC’s manager of multicultural initiatives.
The symbol became even more associated with a racial divide when it was adopted by far-right groups, and waved at white-supremacist events, like the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“I don’t think [a Black student] would feel comfortable going into that office or being around any of the officers here,” Johnson-Stanton said.
Shane Crabtree, SLCC’s executive director of public safety, said he did not know about the sticker’s presence. He added that he feels the flag symbol’s original intent was to honor law enforcement, but acknowledged that not everyone agrees.
“Some people can view it as a symbol that represents law enforcement vs. them,” Crabtree said, adding that he would not authorize the symbol in any of SLCC’s safety offices.
Differences of opinion
In 2014, Andrew Jacob, a white college student at the University of Michigan, had the idea of putting a blue line on an American flag symbol — as a show of support of law enforcement as protests against police brutality swept the country. (The phrase “thin blue line” — describing police as the only force separating law-abiding citizens from criminals — goes back to the early 1900s.)
Jacob now is president of Thin Blue Line USA, an online retailer that sells merchandise emblazoned with the black-and-white flag with the blue stripe: Christmas ornaments, face masks, t-shirts and, yes, stickers.
Jacob’s company insists the symbol is apolitical. When the U.S. Capitol insurrectionists brandished the symbol on Jan. 6, 2021, the company swiftly issued a statement denouncing the attack.
“The Thin Blue Line Flag stands for the sacrifice law enforcement officers of this nation make each day,” the post read. “We reject in the strongest possible terms any association of the flag with racism, hatred, bigotry, and violence. To use it in such a way tarnishes everything it and our nation stands for.”
Kent Oggart, the South City campus’s safety supervisor (who is not a member of law enforcement), said the symbol represents unity — but “people can view any symbol however they want to.”
Johnson-Stanton argued that it is difficult to believe officers at SLCC are not aware of how many people – African Americans, in particular — have a different view of what the flag represents.
“Whoever put it up, I believe that they had to know what it meant,” she said.
Johnson-Stanton said the symbol was a direct reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement — and a response to how that movement was misrepresented.
“The more we talked about our lives mattering, the more it made other people angry,” she said. She added that Black Lives Matter “is not about police officers and other people … not mattering,” but an attempt to shine a light on the violence Black men and women were suffering at the hands of law enforcement.
Rae Duckworth, the interim director of Black Lives Matter’s Utah chapter, was more blunt: “That’s an ugly, terrible, divisive symbol” that was “only created to overshadow the Black Lives Matter movement.”
In Duckworth’s view, exhibiting the flag symbol at an institution that fosters diversity in education feels like a betrayal.
“The fact that was being showcased is scary,” she said. “I feel fear for those students.”
An emblem commandeered
SLCC did not have “any official awareness” of the Thin Blue Line flag sticker being displayed on the South City campus, said Kathie Campbell, the school’s interim dean of students and assistant vice principal. While displaying it falls under officers’ First Amendment rights, she said the sticker “would probably not have been up if [school officials] had known it was up.”
Campbell said she recognizes that SLCC is “a microcosm of our surrounding community” and must contend with the various prejudices found in the culture. In the last year or so, the school has dealt with the discovery of the letters ‘KKK’ written on a school whiteboard and the racist interruptions of virtual school events.
Sgt. Cameron Roden, public information officer for the Utah Highway Patrol — the agency that handles police services at SLCC’s South City, Taylorsville and Jordan campuses — said the Thin Blue Line flag is not prohibited within the agency, “but it’s not a symbol that’s particularly endorsed.”
(The flag sticker appeared near the UHP’s beehive logo on the window at the South City safety office.)
At SLCC, troopers have met with student groups, Roden said, to “open up avenues of conversation [and] make inroads so that everybody feels like they can come to law enforcement there at the college.”
Peter Moosman, coordinator at SLCC’s Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center, confirmed the school’s safety office has made efforts recently to mend its relationship with “communities that have a historical mistrust or a negative history with law enforcement.” He said the presence of that symbol would make students already uncomfortable reaching out to campus law enforcement would be even less inclined to do so.
Deidre Tyler, a sociology professor at SLCC, said one’s interpretation of the Thin Blue Flag “depends on who you are and your experiences.”
Tyler, who is Black, worked alongside law enforcement in the 1980s as a social worker in Mississippi, and found the experience largely positive. But times and attitudes change, and Tyler said she would find it hard to put herself in the mindset of a college student today.
“What one thing means to [a 62-year-old] can mean something totally different to a 19-year-old,” she said. “We’re so different in how we perceive things.”
And those differences — informed by age, experience or identity — contribute to a culture that is increasingly divided, she said.
“Will it change?” Tyler asked. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Will Stamp wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.