The police and firefighter flags were apparently added to the Park of Honor military service flags a few years ago.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Parks Commission is asking the Kiwanis Club to remove two flags — one of which has become linked to white supremacy — from its Park of Honor on Park Square.
The club has installed hundreds of American flags at Park Square
for 11 years to both honor veterans and raise money for scholarships for their children and grandchildren. About three years ago, the Stars and Stripes and service flags were joined by banners that have come to represent police and firefighters — the American flag in black and white with a red or blue stripe.
The commissioners said the intent of these flags may initially have been to honor fallen police officers and firefighters but now — the "thin blue line" flag in particular — have come to symbolize something else at the national level.
Additionally, they agreed that it is not appropriate to include these flags in a display that is supposed to honor military veterans.
"While these flags have flown previously, they certainly carry a different political meaning in our current climate and are not something that this commission or we as a city would have intended nor, in defense of the Kiwanis, I don't want to speak for them, would they have intended it this way," Chairman Anthony DeMartino said. "This is a fundraiser meant to honor the military and anybody who services. The Kiwanis comes right out and says they are not a political organization."
The police flag, now often referred to as a Blue Lives Matter flag, in particular has become synonymous with police brutality and white supremacy, especially after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other people of color by police officers.
The Blue Lives Matter movement is seen as a counter movement to Black Lives Matter and was started after the homicides of New York Police Department Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in 2014. It inspired a state law in Louisiana that made it a hate crime to target police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical service personnel. This law has been heavily criticized for extending hate-crime law protections outside of characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, to include career choice.
In a letter to the commission, Human Rights Commission Chairman Drew Herzig said the flags' display "might charitably be construed as a misguided attempt to be inclusive. However, fire departments and police departments are not branches of the military, and should not be co-opted in military displays."
Police and firefighters have their own memorials that should be observed but not as part of an event honoring veterans, he said.
"At its best, the placing of these flags in Park Square right in the midst of the flags representing the various branches of the military was well-intentioned, but inappropriate. At its worst, it was a deliberate attempt to conceal militarism and racism under the cloak of patriotism," he wrote. "Pittsfield can be known either as a city that tolerates racism, or as a city that does not tolerate racism. Racist or anti-racist — there is no third option."
The flags had apparently been tossed in the bushes near the courthouse at one point but were back on display Wednesday.
Commissioner Simon Hull was concerned that these flags would cloud people's opinions of Veterans Day and honoring those who have served, which he said should be backed by everyone.
"My biggest concern is that what I think is a great display at Park Square becomes a political hot spot," he said. "Which is not what I think it should become, and if removing these two flags could prevent that from becoming some sort of political hot spot then I am in favor of doing that."
A majority of the commission was not aware that these flags had been previously included in the display.
Commissioners Michele Matthews and Cliff Nilan agreed that Kiwanis should have notified the commission that these flags would be in presence.
But upon further review, the Kiwanis' application for the Park of Honor didn't specifically say they were going to display American and service flags only.
iBerkshires had queried Pittsfield Kiwanis President Cheryl Tripp Cleveland about the flags shortly after the Park of Honor event. She said the display was not in support of the Blue Lives Matter movement or any movement other than honoring veterans and helping their families.
"They represent the lives of fallen police officers and firefighters. Nowhere does it say that any lives matter," she wrote. "To say I am upset is a huge understatement. People need to do some research before jumping the gun, it causes a lot of issues that needn't be addressed."
Tripp Cleveland said Kiwanis was not a political organization and that she had spoken with the mayor.
However, on Tuesday, DeMartino agreed with Hull that the commission needed to address the issue to eliminate the political nature of the display.
The commission unanimously agreed to inform the Pittsfield Kiwanis that they would like to ensure the blue and red lives matter flags are removed and are replaced with American flags for the duration of the exhibit, when ends on Nov. 29. The commissioners said they hope Kiwanis will come to them next year with same proposal, but that there will be just American and military flags on display.
"We certainly understand that the circumstances of the year have put us in a little different place than we have had before," DeMartino said.
Herzig's full letter to the Parks Commission
Dear Pittsfield Park Commissioners:
I am writing to you to register my objections to the presence of a "Blue Lives Matter" flag in our public space of Park Square.
My objections are twofold.
Firstly, the presence of a "Thin Red Line" flag and a "Thin Blue Line" flag (the latter more commonly known as the "Blue Lives Matter" flag) in the display of flags for Veterans Day might charitably be construed as a misguided attempt to be inclusive. However, fire departments and police departments are not branches of the military, and should not be co-opted in military displays. Police and fire departments have their own occasions when they memorialize their colleagues. We should respect those observances. At its best, the placing of these flags in Park Square right in the midst of the flags representing the various branches of the military was well-intentioned, but inappropriate. At its worst, it was a deliberate attempt to conceal militarism and racism under the cloak of patriotism.
Which leads to my second objection. The "Blue Lives Matter" flag is accepted, by both proponents and opponents, as a counter and rebuke to the Black Lives Matter movement. In other words, it is a statement and symbol of white supremacy. There is no honest debate on this point. Everyone knows this to be the case, and it is inconceivable that at least some members of the local Kiwanis Club were not aware of this. Therefore, the placing of this flag in a public park, with a permit from the city, is rightly being felt by local communities of color as a slap in the face, to put it mildly.
The Park Commissioners might not have been aware of the Kiwanis Club's plan to display a "Blue Lives Matter" flag in Park Square when they approved the permit. But now you do know. Even if we generously credit the Kiwanis Club with nothing but good intentions and/or complete ignorance of the debate that is currently consuming our nation, we must look at the effect of their actions on the community, and declare, "This shall not stand."
You can either enable a recognized racist symbol, however unintentional you may wish to interpret its deployment, or take immediate steps to remedy the situation. You hold the power in this instance. It is your call, and your responsibility. Pittsfield can be known either as a city that tolerates racism, or as a city that does not tolerate racism. Racist or anti-racist — there is no third option.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.