Elected officials in Riverside on July 16 turned aside a request by Village Trustee Alex Gallegos to fly a version of the Blue Lives Matter flag outside the township hall during the month of September to honor first responders, saying it was a divisive symbol that had been coopted by hate groups.
Gallegos’ request appeared to be dead on arrival even before the July 16 village board meeting where it was discussed after word filtered out into the community via social media when the meeting agenda was published two days earlier.
In introducing the idea at the meeting, Gallegos tied flying the flag in September with the annual anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, asking his fellow trustees to have the village fly the flag “to recognize this day and our first responders.”
Acknowledging the pushback he and other elected officials received in the two days prior to the village board meeting, Gallegos pointed to his Hispanic heritage, asking those who saw racism and bigotry in the Blue Lives Matter flag to “take them up with me directly. And I will defend those flags for the true meaning for which they were intended.”
At the same time, Gallegos said, his proposal “was only a suggestion and I’m sure that my fellow trustees have their own thoughts and suggestions.”
The Blue Lives Matter flag was created in 2014 after two New York City police officers were killed in the line of duty. It’s a black and white American flag with a blue stripe through the center symbolizing the “thin blue line,” a concept that police are the barrier standing between civilized society and chaos.
The flag was a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which began around 2013 in response to police officers killing unarmed Black people and police brutality against people of color generally.
In short order, the Blue Lives Matter flag began being used by those protesting Black Lives Matter. For example, white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 carried the Blue Lives Matter flag alongside the Confederate battle flag and other flags bearing fascist symbols.
“There is nothing about this flag that’s not divisive, so for that reason the flag is inappropriate,” said Village President Ben Sells, who added that the village just two weeks earlier had dedicated its entire July 4 parade to honoring first responders, and that the village’s first responders participate annually in a 9/11 memorial ceremony with neighboring communities and that Oct. 28 is National First Responders Day.
That day, he said, “would be another opportunity where we could have an unambiguous statement about what we’re actually talking about.”
No other trustees expressed support for the request, which was to fly a version of the Blue Lives Matter Flag that swaps the solid blue stripe through the center with a red and blue one to symbolize support for police and firefighters.
A number of residents emailed letters, which were read during the village board meeting, opposing the request, and a handful of residents who have been involved with Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the past two months spoke out publicly against the use of the symbol.
No one spoke in favor of flying the flag.
Devin Conrath, a recent Riverside-Brookfield High School graduate who has been an active participant in local Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis in late May, told trustees that it “would be a big F.U. to fly this flag at this time in history.”
RBHS graduates Shalah and Seymone Russell, in a letter read to trustees during the meeting by Audrey Santora, said that trustees were even considering the proposal to fly a version of the Blue Lives Matter flag was “an insult to us as Black women.”
“It makes us feel unwelcome in our own community,” the Russells wrote. “That flag silences Black voices in this town” and that the flag “is merely an attempt to cover up systemic racism.”
Trustee Edward Hannon, who said he did not think flying the flag was appropriate, did defend the village board’s discussion of Gallegos’ proposal, saying, “That’s the whole reason why we have the village board meeting.”
But, Trustee Cristin Evans said elected officials should take more care when coming to the board table with proposals.
“Trustees have a responsibility, prior to bringing something to the board, as far as researching what it is they want to propose,” Evans said. “It could be a harmful idea. … I do think we have a responsibility to do a little research before putting it on the agenda.”