In late October, administrators at a school district in suburban New York City told employees that some of their clothing made students uncomfortable and even threatened.
These were masks showing the so-called thin blue line flag, which signals support for the police but has increasingly been used to demonstrate opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has spoken out against the racism in the police.
Wearing the symbol violates a district policy prohibiting employees from expressing political speech, officials said. The logo, a black and white version of the American flag with a single blue stripe across its center, could no longer be worn by staff members.
Days later, a group of neighborhood workers in Pelham, NY, appeared at work wearing shirts bearing the word “Vote” and the names of blacks killed by police, prompting accusations of hypocrisy and party politics. taken political.
The resulting controversy divided Pelham, an affluent, predominantly white town in Westchester County of about 12,000 people just north of New York City.
The tense debate exemplifies the political powder keg that much of the United States has become, where an emblem on a mask or crest on a sleeve can spark an argument that consumes a community.
In the center of the Conflict is a symbol that has come to mean very different things to different people, a black, white and blue Rorschach test whose meaning continues to change amid continued national recognition of racism and police violence.
“It made a lot of people angry here, obviously,” said Ralph DeMasi, a school safety coordinator who was told not to carry the flag. “Obviously, a directive has been given. One side followed him, while another was allowed to express their point of view.
The discussions on Facebook became heated. Neighbors made clear positions and lined up in the cold to speak at a public meeting. School employees and parents said they received threatening messages as the district gained national media attention.
“People take that hard line,” said Solange Hansen, a black and Latina woman who moved to Pelham last year and whose teenage son is a student there. “All of a sudden, overnight, you see these blue flags on people’s lawns. You see them in people’s businesses. And that makes it really difficult for people of color.
On Friday evening, The Pelham Examiner, a local outlet, published a letter written by Nadine LeeSang, a high school student from Pelham, expressing support for the district’s policy and saying the flag reminded students of the color of “racist experiences they had lived. “With the police.
“No one was really talking about how uncomfortable the students were, and it was kind of getting fired,” Ms. LeeSang, 17, who is black and Asian, said in an interview. His letter was signed by 15 other people, most of whom were also students.
Debate over the meaning of the flag has unfolded across the country, particularly after widespread protests this summer against police brutality and systemic racism.
An Ohio school district banned it after a football player showed it before a game; a school in another Ohio district has suspended students for carrying him to the field. There have been opposing rallies in a Massachusetts town where officials ordered the flag removed from fire trucks.
Those who support the flag say it has long been used to honor law enforcement officials who sacrificed their lives and is not a political statement.
“It means a memorial, a link between officers killed in the line of duty and those who continue in the present,” said Carla Caccavale, a Pelham resident who has four children enrolled in district schools whose father, a New York City Transit detective, was killed trying to stop a robbery when Ms. Caccavale was a baby.
Ms. Caccavale has made sweatshirts in honor of her father’s memory that include a thin blue line. Although she initially made them only for her family and one other family, she started selling them to support police related charities.
When school staff learned they could no longer wear the flag, his sweaters were included in the ban. She said the decision baffled her.
“You have to look at the intent of the sweatshirts,” she says.
But supporters of the neighborhood ban on the flag said the logo could not be separated from its current context as a symbol of the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement which emerged in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. .
Critics of the flag also claim the image acquired a racist undertone after it was worn at hate group protests, including a rally in Charlottesville, Va., In 2017, where white nationalists held a weekend of protests. that have become violent.
“Now that you see this flag floating next to these other racist flags and symbols, it’s very hard not to say, ‘Well that’s a racist symbol,'” said Annemarie Garcia, who has two teens enrolled. in Pelham schools. “Even if that’s not what it originally meant to you.”
In recent months, the flag has become a more common sight at pro-police protests around New York and elsewhere. He was prominently behind President Trump at a campaign rally in Wisconsin, and the campaign sold merchandise bearing the symbol.
Mr DeMasi, the Pelham school employee who was told not to carry the flag, said he had not linked him to white supremacists. But he recognized that it had become a political symbol.
“Obviously you saw trailers with the Trump flag on the back of the pickup trucks, then the thin blue line,” said Mr. DeMasi, a former police officer. “I think people might have had a good intention, but it ended up giving a black eye in the sense of the thin blue line.
But Ms. Caccavale’s sweatshirt ban prompted a fierce letter from the president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, a New York City police union, which accused Cheryl Champ, the district superintendent, of “perverting the views” of students and turn them into “cop-haters.”
The letter sparked coverage by local and national media, including Fox News, where Ms Caccavale has appeared twice.
Much of the coverage has focused on Ms. Caccavale and school board policy, to the frustration of some who have expressed concern that the concerns of non-white students will be ignored.
The school district would not provide details of the students involved, including the number of complaints or the ages of those who filed them.
Ms Garcia, who volunteers for the district, said she heard several students explain their views on the flag to staff, but declined to provide details, citing privacy concerns.
“You have teenagers who have stood up and expressed their concern,” said Ms. Garcia, who identifies as white and Hispanic. “And these aren’t teenagers who look like the majority of Pelham’s children.”
At a school board meeting on Wednesday, Dr Champ said that when she first started hearing complaints about the flag, she researched and concluded that it should not be worn. When she received complaints about shirts that said “Vote,” she did the same, she said.
“I apologize for not applying this policy equally at the beginning, which I admit created an appearance of one-sidedness,” she said.
Several people who spoke at the meeting in support of Ms Caccavale urged administrators to bring the police into classrooms and foster a discussion about the symbol.
Ms Hansen rejected the suggestion, saying she ignored the feelings of children like her own, who would be threatened with seeing officers in schools.
“Why impose this on our children?” she asked. “If even a child said, ‘I’m afraid of this symbol,’ isn’t that enough? ‘