If you follow me on social media you probably know my lawn signs (a Biden/Harris sign and a BLM sign) were stolen yesterday between 2 and 5 pm. This sparked a discussion on our local email list about lawn signs and responses to them in the community. I finally wrote up some thoughts. Obviously my thoughts on how to ‘read’ signs is influenced by my work as a Roman historian and numismatist specializing in visual political rhetoric, particularly at the end of the republic. I am professionally accustomed to thinking about the dissemination of meaning and plurality of connotations of any message, but especially the combination of image and words. Thus I thought I’d share my words here too:
For the last few weeks I’ve been reflecting a great deal on why I am unsettled by the current design of the Support Easton Police Signs (link to FB group distributing signs). I did in fact acquire a BLM sign as my first public response to this message from some of my neighbors.
The words on these “Support Easton Police” signs communicate a positive attitude towards a group of local government employees. Many of us (including myself) have had personal positive experiences with the individuals who make up this group. Many of us want that group to help us when we feel scared or our property or persons are threatened. Many of us trust that this is how this group will respond. Some in our community have had negative experiences. Some do not trust that calling this group will be a positive experience in a crisis. Many (most even?) would want others in the community to share our positive experiences and trust. We may have different ideas about how to widen that inclusive message.
The words on the Support Easton Police signs communicate one’s own trust and positive experience on a local level, but some who have had negative experiences or distrust may read the signs as a discounting of the experiences of themselves and their communities on a local level. I would not put such a sign in my own yard because I would not want my neighbors to think I prioritize my own positive experiences over their negative ones. This is especially true because these signs are in dialogue with wider national experiences and conversations. This is made most obvious by the same design being used in immediately neighboring communities like Palmer with only a name change, likely printed, designed, and/or distributed by the same individuals.
The words are one thing, but the image/background is in fact what gives me the biggest pause.
The background is a black and white American flag with a blue line. The flag is a visual representation of the belief that the police are “a thin blue line” a rhetoric that is far older than the flag itself. The exact creation of the imagery is still hazy but its dissemination came to the fore in 2014 in the aftermath of the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. Read more both the history and recent usage of the imagery and the phrase here–I chose this piece as it gives voice to some of those who have been most active in the promotion of the the imagery itself. The flag has also been divisive in other small cities.
In my professional research one way I make arguments about the historical connotations of an image is by tracing patterns of usage and associated symbols. Not everyone who uses thin blue line imagery may believe that white people are under threat or that there is a need for private citizens to arm themselves and prepare for vigilante action, but groups with these beliefs regularly use this flag in conjunction with other symbols related to those beliefs. The symbol is strongly associated and adopted by those with more extreme beliefs regarding race and the use of firearms and violence. Warrior XII merchandise is a good example of the co-option and elision of such symbols (links to waybackmachine site archive; there is also analysis of this iconography available from Vassar faculty).
Of course, similar arguments about the connotations of my Black Lives Matter sign can be made, especially that it connotes abolition of the police because many (but not all) who support the Black Lives Matter movement advocate for de-funding the police or abolition. And it is true, I want those who see my sign to think about why I might be willing to give up some of my own sense of security and to have a conversation about police abolition because of the violence of our present policing system. On the spectrum of possible policy changes my personal preference falls more on community engagement in reform, demilitarization, and reallocation of funds to different social services and providing our community with a wider set of possible 911 crisis response options to ensure police don’t have to be on the front lines when others are better trained for a particular situation. Nevertheless, I’m fully cognizant my sign may connote more and accept those connotations as well in the overall message I’m willing to send:
When I put a BLM sign in my lawn I want you to assume I prioritize the lives and safety of my neighbors above and beyond my support for any one governmental institution no matter how much I may love and respect the individuals who work with that institution.
When I see a sign with a thin blue line flag it seems reasonable to assume those who post it prioritize the organization over the lives, perhaps viewing the violence as either justified or unavoidable as part of what they see as a wider “social good”. This message is not just communicated by the words but by the choice of background.
If you feel differently, but wish to communicate support for the Easton police, I would encourage our local community adopt a different background. I’d love to see an Easton sign design with many clasped hands of different skin colors that has a slogan about serving our whole community, to accompany an inclusive conversation about how we can improve and enhance how our local government, including the police, to serve the needs of all members of our community.
One may say “that’s not what I personally meant by my sign” but much of communication (especially public speech like lawn signs!) is not simply individual intention, but rather what is heard. That is why context matters. My hope here is to help clarify context. Even if you do not agree with me. I hope we can keep talking. That’s what neighbors do.