Beyond the thin blue line: Police ‘solidarity’ and what we can do about it

On May 26th, exactly one year after the murder of George Floyd, the ‘thin blue line’ flag flew at the Edmonton Police Association’s headquarters.

And it’s not just here in amiskwaciwâskahikan. In the past few months, both the Calgary and Lethbridge police have shamelessly displayed and defended the thin blue line symbol. The Lethbridge Police have it mounted on their wall in their headquarters. Multiple Calgary police officers were seen with the patch while working at one of the regular COVID-denier protests. 

Law enforcement agencies across the country are certainly aware of the corrosive and problematic connotations of this symbol. Last year, the RCMP had to issue an official directive banning their officers from wearing it while on duty. 

Nevertheless, the Edmonton Police Association defended the use of the symbol, noting that the “flag has no correlation to division, racism, or bigotry,” but rather, “represents solidarity to [...] colleagues working in the field of policing.” They argued that describing the flag as “divisive” is “inaccurate and ill-informed.” Similarly, the president of Calgary Police Association called it a symbol of “solidarity” while also defending it

Back in August of 2020 at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally in Mohkinstsis, a group of Proud Boys proudly displayed an American version of the thin blue line flag. They did so while being protected by a line of Calgary Police Service officers. The Proud Boys were formally designated a terrorist group by the federal government in February of 2021

The Proud Boys with a thin blue line flag counter protesting a BLM rally in August 2020 in Calgary (left). The Proud Boys with a thin blue line flag counter protesting the same BLM rally but behind a line of Calgary police officers (right)

Andrew Jacob, president of Thin Blue Line USA, says the flag intends to “show support for law enforcement—no politics involved.” They argue that the “flag has no association with racism, hatred, [and] bigotry.” Yet the symbol keeps showing up at violent, far-right hate events, most notably in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and when the U.S. Capitol was stormed in January earlier this year

While the Canadian version of the thin blue line flag clearly mirrors that south of the border, the origins of this symbol can be traced back over a hundred years. It was initially used by “the British Army in 1854 during the Crimean War” to reference a military formation. Over time, the phrase was adopted by police departments across the so-called United States as a symbol of unity and solidarity among police personnel. But police solidarity in the face of what?

The increased saliency of the thin blue line symbol occurred in tandem with the rise of the “Blue Lives Matter'' movement in 2014 in response to early formations of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The “solidarity” is at the expense of accountability for police brutality. While marginalized communities work towards liberation, police continue to act as an extension of the state that inflicts violence against Black and Indigenous communities. Police brutality in so-called Canada is not new it is a direct extension of settler-colonial violence.

This kind of symbolism not only incites violence, it is violence. “Blue Lives Matter” is reactionary and dangerous. Police violence—including imagery like the thin blue line—is an expression of  settler-colonial interests where the priorities of the state (property, profit, industry, settlers) are valued over the lives, sovereignty and self-determination of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples. Efforts to preserve the image of police as an inherent and necessary part of safe society only serves to promote the colonial thesis that we need the settler state to thrive. 

But our safety has never required policing. We need instead to reassess both how we recognize violence and how we think violence should be treated. 

In seeking self-determination and liberation for communities targeted by police violence, there are two truths we must acknowledge. First, we must admit that the criminal-legal system and its employees do not work for our communities. Despite the carefully constructed narrative of a duty to “protect and serve,” scarce accounts of true accountability and widespread accounts of violence at the hands of the police testify otherwise. 

Second, we need to organize. The instruments of the settler state will not solve the violence of the settler state. Instead the hold that policing has over our lives needs to be disrupted through investment into mutual aid and autonomous, community-led justice.

It is urgent that we embark on transformative work throughout our marginalized communities. While the criminal-legal system continues to reproduce violence and isolation through carceral “justice,” Black, Brown and Indigenous communities remain subject to ongoing colonial abuse without the means to access self-determination and sovereignty. The reality is that the settler state is invested in the police and prison system both because it is profitable, and because the decolonial alternative threatens to disrupt ongoing exploitation, dispossession and extraction. 

Alternatives to policing are possible and are springing up across the continent. In particular, we want to bring attention to Bear Clan Patrol, an Indigenous-led street outreach group which started in Winnipeg and has spread to multiple cities nationwide, including here in amiskwaciwâskahikan.

Flying the thin blue line flag has tangible consequences and reaffirms the allegiance of police forces to the settler-colonial project. Ongoing Black, Brown and Indigenous relationships to policing are set against this extensive history of oppression. This reality is central to our legacy of abolition, which situates current violence in the ongoing struggle for collective liberation.

BLM YEG serves as the amiskwaciwâskahikan chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and is committed to the Black liberation movement and working for the validity of Black life. BLM YEG actively opposes global anti-Blackness, everyday racism, the abuse of power and privilege against Black peoples, which is perpetuated by local authorities and communities. Due to the hypervisibility and precarity of the status of Black organizers actively working towards decolonization, the writers of this article wish to remain anonymous as a means to ensure increased safety and security.