In July of 1964, Trooper Charles Black was shot and killed during a bank robbery in southern Maine. This month, his family sought to honor him by flying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag on a telephone pole in York. That shouldn’t be cause for contention.
Unfortunately, with our increasing slide into outrage culture, even a simple, reasonable tribute such as this can devolve into unnecessary controversy.
As reported by the York Weekly, the family decided to take the flag down after concerns were raised about how some people might react to it. The flag may be used to honor slain police officers, but it’s also been co-opted by white supremecists groups in some instances, so some people find it problematic.
But as with the back-and-forth over Nike’s abandoned “Betsy Ross” shoe design, we cannot allow the use of a symbol by a few bad actors to completely tarnish a symbol or render it’s generally-understood message unusable.
Symbols mean different things to different people, and communities should of course take steps to ensure that residents and visitors feel welcome, but how far are we willing to extend this fear of offending people? Surely, it shouldn’t be this far.
“God forbid we should offend anyone,” said Black’s widow, Mary Black Andrews, who previously served on the York Selectboard. “It bothers me tremendously. It’s the anniversary of his death. He gave his life to protect the public, and I gave my life to this town, and we can’t even celebrate this person. I’m sorry I offended them. It’s coming down and it won’t happen again.”
The best reason for this particular flag to come down, it seems to us, would have been if mounting it on a telephone pole somehow violated town policy. But even that apparently fails to pass muster in this case.
“There is no policy about flags. Can anyone put anything up there? I don’t know,” said Police Chief Charles Szeniawski, adding that maybe the town should look into such a policy.
“I don’t know what the right outcome is,” Town Manager Steve Burns said. “This family was putting up the flag in memory of Mary’s husband. She’s feeling hurt right now. I also don’t want some visitor to think it’s a racist flag. So I’m glad it’s down. I don’t want the community festering over this.”
In fairness to the folks in York, the right outcome that Burns alluded to is often hard to find when towns, officials and people going about their daily lives increasingly have to anticipate and navigate outrage — outrage from the people they serve, outrage from their neighbors, outrage online, outrage from the media.
At some point, however, we need to recognize that keeping everyone comfortable — and trying to avoid controversy — can be ridiculously unproductive. We shouldn’t let outrage — real or perceived — get in the way of an innocuous tribute to a fallen family member.
Those of us in the media, of course, need to be careful not to feed into the outrage cycle ourselves. For instance, our initial reaction to the York Weekly story about this episode was confusion, with our own tiny bit of outrage. Why didn’t the people raising concerns about the flag take time to learn about the reason it was being flown? As it turns out, they say they did.
The York Diversity Forum, which faced some backlash online for the concerns its members raised about the flag, clarified in a statement that some of its leadership met with town staff to get more information, and said it did not ask for the flag to come down.
“We explained we had come on a fact-finding mission; we were not looking for the town to take any specific action. We asked if they knew who had hung the flag and why it was on one of the utility poles in the right-of-way,” read the group’s statement.
“We have no information on what motivated the family to take down the flag. We are deeply saddened by the hurt felt by the family around this loving attempt to honor their family member,” it continued.
The group apparently tried to do the right thing: find the facts, have a conversation and express their concerns. But the outrage machine took over from there. Everyone involved, including the media, should try to learn from this. This tribute to a loved one should not have spiraled as it did.