For weeks, a black-and-white American flag with a blue stripe down the middle stood above the New Jersey Turnpike.
The flag, posted on an overpass in Woodbridge Township, appeared this spring, residents say.
Now, some are relieved that it has been removed. Residents who objected to the “thin blue line” flag says its message stands in opposition to the fight against systemic racism.
Those who use the flag say it is a way to support police. But the image has come to be associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement, whose very formation was a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, Woodbridge residents are petitioning the mayor and town council to remove the blue line that runs down Main Street. Residents who marched the street June 7 for a Black Lives Matter protest say police told them to stay on the right side of the line. Town officials say the blue line is intended to be a show of support for police.
But the symbols and their meaning have come into sharper focus as protests against police brutality and racial injustice have swept the state and country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed May 25 when white police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.
“I think that this whole movement is a wake-up call for a lot of people,” says Woodbridge resident Meghan Brown. She emailed Mayor John McCormac to ask that the flag be removed.
“I just said, ‘It’s on your property and you could see it on the Turnpike,’” she tells NJ Advance Media. “’You might not want to send that message.’”
The “thin blue line” has been around for decades, having started as a reference to the “thin red line” held by the British in the 1854 Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in Russia.
Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Sanford, Florida in 2012. The Blue Lives Matter movement was founded in 2014, after Black Lives Matter was established in 2013.
“It is a co-opting of their movement,” Brown says of Blue Lives Matter and the flag. “I think it’s in bad taste and has a lot of racist connotations. To say that it’s about supporting police is pretty disingenuous.”
Blue Lives Matter was organized in 2014 after Ismaaiyl Brinsley fatally shot New York police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in Brooklyn. The officers were killed months after police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, an unarmed black man on Staten Island, died after being placed in a chokehold by officer Daniel Pantaleo.
“The people who created the ‘thin blue line’ flag say it’s not attached to Blue Lives Matter, but it’s carried by them,” says Khadijah Costley White, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.
Residents in Montclair objected to a “thin blue line” flag that was mounted on a wall during a June 2 online forum with police. Baristanet reported that a police official rejected the flag’s association with Blue Lives Matter.
“It’s very clear that it’s in direct response to Black Lives Matter,” White says of the flag. “… They were reacting to protests against the way police can kill black people with impunity.”
“It’s an anti-black response to black people asking not to be murdered,” says White, co-founder of SOMA Justice, a nonprofit that works to address racial injustice and inequality in South Orange and Maplewood.
When it came to the flag in Woodbridge, McCormac, the town’s mayor, suggested Brown contact the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, since the overpass where it was posted, on Woodbridge Avenue, is Turnpike property.
On June 2, a customer service manager for the authority informed Brown that a maintenance crew would take the flag down the next day, and it was removed from the overpass.
Thomas Feeney, spokesman for the authority, says regulations prohibit people from displaying anything on Turnpike property without permission, though a series of other flags can be found on the same span.
This group’s stated mission is “showing patriotism for our great country and community” and support for members of the military, veterans and first responders. “The bridges will be our way of showing our support to these groups,” it says.
The administrator of the group did not return messages or calls from NJ Advance Media seeking comment.
“Both issues were brought to the attention of Woodbridge elected officials, explaining how these controversial and divisive symbols send the message that Woodbridge is an anti-Black Lives Matter town,” Dabrowski wrote in the petition.
The blue line is painted between the double yellow line on Main Street.
“You never saw that prior to the Black Lives Matter movement,” he tells NJ Advance Media. “It’s more of a reaction to, ‘How dare you try to hold us accountable and call for police reform?’” he says. The line is only changed when it is made green for St. Patrick’s Day, Dabrowski says.
At the Woodbridge Black Lives Matter rally, officers told protesters to stand to the right of the blue line, he says.
“It felt like a symbolic thing, like, ‘You will not cross our blue line,’” Dabrowski says. “That was the underlying vibe that a lot of us got. It’s basically like saying ‘No, we will never change.’ It’s just disheartening.”
John Hagerty, spokesman for Woodbridge Township, says the town knows about Dabrowski’s petition.
“We were aware of the flag but we have no position on it since it’s Turnpike property,” he tells NJ Advance Media. The town arranged for the blue line to be painted five to six years ago, he says.
“The blue line is representative of municipal support for the police department,” Hagerty says. “We have no intention of removing it.”
He noted that the mayor participated in the Black Lives Matter march and spoke at the rally. He also pointed to the fact that other towns have painted blue lines on their streets.
Betsy Driver, the mayor of Flemington, had a blue line on the borough’s Main Street painted over in advance of a Black Lives Matter protest.
“It’s time we put that shameful dividing line behind us,” Driver tweeted June 6, sharing a photo of the line being erased. In response, some residents backed a petition to repaint the line.
On June 9, there was a protest outside Woodbridge Police headquarters after the family of Qwason Campbell, a black man from Elizabeth, told activist Salaam Ismial that he was beaten unconscious by township police officers, something the town has denied.
According to a report from the Courier News, police had arrested Campbell, 24, in connection with two June 1 burglaries and charged him with six counts of burglary, two counts of theft, one count of receiving stolen property, two counts of theft of a credit card and resisting arrest.