LAST WEEK, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese sparked controversy among some local law enforcement officers when he removed a “Thin Blue Line” flag from a break room in the Multnomah County Courthouse.
The flag—a black-and-white US flag with a single blue stripe across its middle—was created as a way to honor fallen officers. But more and more, it’s been co-opted by fringe-right and racist groups.
It was paraded through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, during recent white supremacist demonstrations, and unfurled by Donald Trump supporters at a contentious “free speech rally” held in Portland in early June.
Reese’s decision to remove the flag drew nationwide attention (the sheriff says he might still display it somewhere else). What hasn’t been reported is who first forwarded concerns about the flag to him: a staffer for Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann.
Here’s what Stegmann had to say about the matter (edited for brevity and clarity):
MERCURY: How did you become aware there was this flag in the break room?
LORI STEGMANN: This actually surfaced through, I believe, a social media post. It wasn’t directed at us. Whenever someone raises a concern about inequity or potentially hurtful things about anyone or [any] group, that’s a concern.
We did call it to the attention of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. I think they handled it appropriately. They took the flag down and are discussing what to do next.
How did you present your concerns? Reese said he’s not sure whether an altered American flag is appropriate in a public building.
It was more about “Was it appropriate?” Right now, it’s a scary time. I’m a person of color. Obviously these things are concerning when we’re trying to make everyone feel welcome in our county. Especially with what’s going on at the national level. So it was more like: Someone has raised a concern, we saw this on social media, wanted to give you a heads up, we think you should look into this.
So you didn’t say you thought the flag should come down?
No. The Multnomah County sheriff is a fellow elected [official], and so he has purview over the county sheriff’s office. But we have a partnership with the sheriff’s office. I think we have a good relationship. We want to hold each other accountable, and we want to raise concerns if we’re off track.
Does the flag have a controversial connotation for you?
As a woman of color, how it could be interpreted is worrisome for me because of the KKK and white supremacists, and the murders of innocent people who are just trying to stand up for each other’s human and civil rights.
I believe that, to most of our public safety officers, this was meant to be a symbol to honor fallen public safety officers. My heart goes out to those families and those officers. Every time they put on a uniform I know that they are risking their lives. It’s really important we embrace that ultimate sacrifice. As a person of color, I can also see how that would be misinterpreted as a commentary on persons of color. It’s a sign of disrespect to some people.
It sounds like you’re aware that this flag has been co-opted by fringe right and racist protestors.
Yes. It’s very disheartening. For communities of color this is a very scary time. Emotions are running so high. I think it’s just important that people think about the importance of symbols. For some people it’s not a big deal, but for other people it’s representative of the hate and the bigotry that we are seeing in our country. If we don’t ever talk about it, how can we ever heal?
Were you surprised at Reese’s reaction? He didn’t just take down the flag, he sent out a press release about it.
I wasn’t surprised. I have the utmost respect for sheriff Reese. I think he is a good sheriff; I think he has the community’s interests at heart. I think he did the appropriate thing by taking it down and talking with his staff and the community to find out what is the best way to show respect for fallen officers and embrace our communities of color.
What kind of responses have you seen?
It goes from people saying, "This is stupid" to "Yes they should take it down." Depending on what your perspective is, it runs the gamut.
Some police organizations are irate.
Neither side is trying to diminish one perspective over another. It’s more to add and to honor people of color and to honor fallen officers. Somewhere in the midst, [the flag’s] been misappropriated. Organizations have hijacked that message. You almost have this collateral damage. People never intended for it to be this corrosive.
If someone’s being harassed, it’s not the perpetrator that gets to decide that the action or those words are offensive. It’s the recipient. We have to say, “Okay, maybe this symbol means something or doesn’t, but am I the right one to say whether that’s hurtful or not?” I think we have to check ourselves.
It sounds like this thing still might be around in some form. Is that okay with you?
It’s become a very divisive symbol. I have to think that there can be a better or more appropriate symbol or a better way. Maybe listing officers’ names, or making it very specific about what it stands for as opposed to leaving it open to interpretation.