I was driving through a suburban neighborhood when I spotted a bizarre American flag flying from a pole near a house.
It had stars and stripes, but the colors were different.
The stripes that should have been blue were black. But there was one thick horizontal stripe in the middle that was a dark blue. And while the stars were white, the background behind them was black, not blue.
It looked like a U.S flag in mourning.
When I arrived home, I looked the flag up on the internet.
That’s when I discovered it was a Thin Blue Line flag.
Some sites described it as a tribute to police officers, the thin blue line representing the officers in uniform standing between criminals and law-abiding citizens. Other sites suggested it was a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrating support for police officers who are being unjustly criticized.
There was a news story posted online about a Thin Blue Line flag being carried at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va.
A letter allegedly written by a police officer to a newspaper stated that the Thin Blue Line flag had nothing whatsoever to do with neo-Nazis or racists.
There were photographs of police officers standing proudly with the Thin Blue Line flag at a memorial ceremony for comrades killed in the line of duty.
And there were stories about a police officer killed in California and photographs of her with the controversial flag.
A spokeswoman for one company that makes the flags told me they started manufacturing them in 2014, copying a pattern of patches worn by some police officers before Black Lives Matter became a nationwide movement.
A portion of the flag sales, she said, benefits various not-for-profit, police organizations throughout the country.
When I suggested some people might view the design as a desecration of the American flag, she said it was completely different, noting the color scheme and claiming that proved it was not a reproduction of the American flag.
I grew up in an era when the American flag was greatly abused. It was abused by those who used it as a symbol of their patriotism (politicians wore American flag lapel pins while telling terrific lies) and those who protested government policies. College students and hippies purchased jeans with an American flag sewn on the butt to illustrate their contempt for our country’s involvement in Vietnam.
Vietnam war protestors took to burning the American flag, which disgusted their parents, many of them World War II veterans, and others.
Over the decades the young anti-government folks turned into Democrats who supported government expansion and the folks who were once pro-government started claiming the FBI and CIA were involved in domestic political conspiracies. Republicans seemed to imply the government couldn’t be trusted, unless it was waging war against a foreign country or torturing people in secret prisons.
People who claimed to be true Americans in my neighborhood began flying the flag on poles in their lawns but didn’t take them down when it rained (as etiquette required) and didn’t shine a light on them at night.
Many other people simply stopped flying the flag, even on the Fourth of July.
But I’ve seen the flags of Ireland, Poland, the Confederate flag and many others displayed throughout my travels.
In Chicago recently, the term “thin blue line” has been used to describe the way police officers rally around one of their own who is accused of criminal misconduct or abuse of power.
To some police officers, it probably describes the way they feel as they fight criminals on one flank, while trying to defend themselves against critics on the other.
I don’t know what to make of these Thin Blue Line flags.
I doubt you could get much agreement on what the American flag represents these days. People pledge allegiance to it, die for it and kill for it.
What it represents, however, is a country deeply divided about what it means to be united.
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