100+ residents, FFs protest at Mass. town hall over order to remove 'thin blue line' flag
Two fire apparatus displaying the flag drove by the rally supporting police officers on Tuesday
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The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.
HINGHAM, Mass. — More than 100 people, including a number of firefighters, gathered in front of Hingham Town Hall on Tuesday for a rally supporting police officers. The protest was in reaction to an order from town officials asking firefighters to take "thin blue line" flags off firetrucks.
Fire Chief Steve Murphy and Police Chief Glenn Olsson explained in a letter to personnel that the blue and black flags, which are black-and-white versions of the American flag with a single blue line in the center, will have to be removed from where they've flown atop Hingham fire trucks after a citizen complaint. Murphy and Olsson say the flags are now in violation of a long-standing town policy that forbids displaying political messaging on town property.
The flags flown by Hingham firefighters were originally purchased to show support for the police department after the 2018 killing of Weymouth police Sgt. Michael Chesna, but have recently "taken a different political meaning," the chiefs said. Firefighters have refused to remove the flag and residents have spoken out against the town's decision.
"I was around when Chesna died. The memory of it is seared into my mind, and it still brings me to tears," Boston police officer Joe Abasciano said at the rally. "It's disappointing that one person asked to take down the flag in his memory. I think this is a teachable moment where we can find some common ground. The flag is not anti-anything. "
Tensions throughout the country have risen around policing as protesters call for reexamination of the justice system in the wake of recent police killings of unarmed Black Americans. Their deaths have highlighted what many point to as systemic racism in the levers of power in the U.S., especially in policing.
Recently, the black and blue flags have been used by "Back the Blue" and "Blue Lives Matter" groups that have formed in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to defund the police. That association has made the flags a political statement, Hingham officials argue, which means they violate town policy.
Mimi Chesna, the mother of Sgt. Michael Chesna, said she took the decision to remove the flag personally, especially since the controversy was sparked near the two-year anniversary of her son's death. She said she wished there was less screaming around the issue and more people coming together.
"It's not a statement against anybody, it's a way of supporting police," Mimi Chesna said of the flag. "He was just doing his job when he was killed."
The president of Hingham's fire union, Lt. Chris Melanson, said union members will not take the flags down.
"At this time, the Hingham Firefighters of Local 2398 respectfully request the town reconsider their decision to deem these flags as political statements. Otherwise, we regret to inform you that over the past four days no member of Local 2398 was able to sacrifice his or her moral fortitude in order to remove the flags from the apparatus," Melanson said. "As we said before, our support for our brothers and sisters in blue is unwavering. The flags have continued to fly with honor every day. They will have to be removed by someone other than a member of this union."
At least two fire trucks displaying the flag were driven past the demonstration Tuesday and were met by cheers. There were "America Backs the Blue" signs and other flags and memorabilia sporting the thin blue line motif. Firefighters from Hingham, Weymouth and Hanover in plain clothes showed up to demonstrate, as did several police officers.
In a lengthy statement, Selectman Joe Fisher said the board has consistently supported public safety departments, but that the flag display was deemed inconsistent with the town's flag practice, which limits which flags can be displayed on public property.
"The resident's request to remove the thin blue line flag from the fire truck was forwarded to the fire chief. I understand that the fire chief consulted with the police chief and the town administrator, each of whom recognized that displaying the thin blue line flag was inconsistent with the town's flag practice," Fisher said.
"Their decision was not based on any ill will towards our police heroes. It did not reflect a decision to belittle the sacrifices made by those who put their lives at risk each day. Rather, the decision represented the consistent implementation of the town's practice concerning the public display of only official flags on town property."
Fisher said the board had refused to fly a rainbow gay pride flag earlier this year on the same principle. Fisher also called for the vitriol directed toward the man who made the initial complaint to end.
"In the last week, he has received numerous threats against his property and his life," Fisher said. "The harassment is ceaseless and vicious. And it has recently expanded to target the welfare and safety of his family. Such conduct debases any attempt at public discourse and makes hypocrites of those who would call for respect for public safety officers while simultaneously threatening the safety of others."
The rally became heated when about five counter-protesters showed up. One woman, Tru Edwards, of Roxbury, had several people screaming at her, and a person in a truck drove by and swore at her. She got into several tense arguments as she stood in the middle of the pro-police demonstration.
"As soon as anything happens to a Black person, nothing happens," Edwards said.
She said that saying the flag was flown to just support one individual was misleading, and that it was a way to push things like Blue Lives Matter.
"What are we really here for? There's a Trump sign right there," Edwards said, pointing to a large Donald Trump flag. "My sign says 'When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.'"
©2020 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.