Symbology is a powerful thing. Images can invoke noble, righteous and kind actions producing positive results for all those involved. They can also incite anger, fear and even outrage to those feeling harmed, disenfranchised, or marginalized by those choosing to use icons as a source of fear. Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say, but today, they are worth so much more.
The available communication mediums of the quill and parchment, and local oratory, have long since been replaced by a digital world that can take an image or phrase, no matter how innocent or guilty in its formation, and have it seen, interpreted, debated, and opined by millions in a matter of moments. As both a candidate, and as an elected official, I personally know well the risk of association, both knowingly and unknowingly, that comes with symbols and imagery, and how quickly it can incite anger, confusion, and perhaps worst of all, the need of some to corrupt the innocence of an action to bleed their own hurt onto others regardless of the consequence or the truth. To all who serve or spend time in the public eye, we understand that responsibility.
But what has happened to our local Centurion football team seems nothing more than the political perception of a few outweighing the good and noble intent of the players.
In November 2019, the students and families of Saugus High School became victims of the heinous actions of one. In the wake of this school shooting, Gracie Ann Muehlberger and Dominic Blackwell were taken from their families, and three other innocent students were injured, who now carry the scars and trauma of that day with them. Since then, our students and community have worked to honor and memorialize Gracie and Dominic, support each other, and continue trying to find peace and understanding for all who have suffered physical and emotional harm from that terrible day.
Part of that process has included the honoring of our local law enforcement and first responders. Having just dropped off kids at school, three off-duty officers heard the gunfire and immediately ran toward the quad. Without knowing the situation or what could be waiting for them, performing their sworn duty to serve and protect was all that mattered! This heroism is something we should all respect, and we often show support of it in a myriad of ways.
One such way has become the center of controversy in our town. While running onto the football field, Saugus players would carry a number of flags. Among them was the “Thin Blue Line” flag, which shares design characteristics of the American flag but is black and white with a blue stripe under the field of stars. Thin Blue Line USA claims ownership of this symbol and says on their website that it represents those in law enforcement who “hold the divide between order and chaos.”
But this is not a view held by all who see it. The founder of Thin Blue Line USA, Andrew Jacob, was inspired to create the flag to show support for law enforcement during a time of social strife, as protests across the country had been sparked by the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. Many took Andrew’s actions to be a direct rebuttal of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had begun a year prior as a social media hashtag in response to George Zimmerman being acquitted. With the flag being displayed at various political events, even if the founding of the symbol was apolitical, it has caused many to tie it to being a rallying cry for partisanship.
While I personally do not share that interpretation and believe the Thin Blue Line flag is meant to serve as a symbol of respect and thanks for our law enforcement, I do not discount how others view this symbol, either. As an elected leader, it is not our role to be the arbiters of society’s feelings on a symbol or an issue, BUT it is our role to ensure people can express those views when it does not harm someone or is purposefully used to incite crime on another. Rights that are enshrined in our Constitution do not get to be modified by the emotional sentiment spawning from a particular situation. Even when the loudest drum being beaten demands dismissal of a right, it is incumbent on our leaders to listen to all they represent and make policy and decisions that are mindful of all, what they believe is best for the institution they govern, and of course, are constitutionally sound.
Which brings us back to the current controversy of the flag. Instead of a diverse and inclusive dialogue about the choice made by these students, a decision was made by the William S. Hart Union High School District to disallow the display of this flag by the football team as they run onto the field. No debate, no policy or directive from the governing board, no substantive discussion on freedom of expression protections in the Constitution. Just a letter concluding that the flag would not be allowed to be carried by the players, just as they have done this season and those previous after the Saugus shooting.
The Saugus football team is not a beacon for political demonstration, and their support of law enforcement using the Thin Blue Line flag seemed to be nothing more than a method of honoring those who rushed to protect them. Do we fear political retribution so much that censorship of a flag meant to honor our front-line defenders can be demanded by a small, but loud digital opinion of the community, and acquiesced by our leaders? Have we become so jaded that the flying of an LGBTQ support flag is somehow considered a “counter protest” to a flag meant to support law enforcement? Have we become so afraid of independent thought and views that we bend the Constitution in ways never imagined by our founders to justify silencing the voices of others? It is a sad day in Santa Clarita when we cannot approach any topic with civility, warmth and compassion, even if at day’s end, our views and opinions do not change.
This Friday, Saugus and Hart will come together in competition. Large numbers are expected to come and support law enforcement using the Thin Blue Line flag, while others may bring different flags or symbols as support of the school district’s decision. Regardless of what you choose to do or not do, PLEASE be respectful to one another, and show nothing but support for our athletes! They have had to suffer enough these past years from the school shooting to the pandemic, and more than anything, they just want to get their lives back and enjoy playing under the lights again! I stand by and support our law enforcement officers and our students, and I pray you all do the same, no matter how you choose to show it.
Jason Gibbs is mayor pro tem of the city of Santa Clarita. This column is intended to represent his own personal views.