As flags go, it isn’t much of one.
The Black Lives Matter flag, that is, that flew for five days this week at UMass Dartmouth.
The black-and-gold format of the Black Lives Matter emblem included no inspiring design like the POW-MIA and Rainbow flags it flew alongside of at the local state campus on Old Westport Road.
But what the BLM flag may have lacked in creativity it more than made up for in the passion it generated on both the left and the right.
Some of the ensuing discussion on talk radio and Facebook had the unpleasant whiff of talk host exploitation and reflexive racism. But a lot of the discussion was both civil and insightful.
Longtime conservative WBSM host Ken Pittman wrote a thoughtful blog about what he called the “legitimate outrage” of African-Americans to police behavior in cases like DJ Henry, a well-respected Easton university student shot to death in 2010 by Brockton police. Pittman drew a distinction between those cases and some of the more extremist actions of some who’ve associated themselves with Black Lives Matter.
The BLM flag was important to African-American students on campus. Kharlita Chambers-Walker, a past president of the Black Student Union, said she was glad and noted it took a long time to get the banner up.
Interim UMD Chancellor Randy Helm explained that the campus’ Diversity and Inclusion Council proposed flying the flag and that the school then developed a new policy for deciding which flags can fly. Helm and a university review committee — a group of faculty, students and staff — decide if the message is compatible with the school’s values. When it ruled in favor of the BLM flag, it was not endorsing the actual group Black Lives Matter or any anti-police or anti-Semitic positions it may endorse, Helm said.
“It is a statement that emphasizes the extent to which racial prejudice and violence have disproprortionately affected African-Americans,” he wrote in an email to the entire campus.
But given the history and commonality of racism against blacks in both American society and in the police departments that are part of that society, Helm also paid proper respect to the very tough job faced by police.
In fact, before flying the banner, Helm went to the UMass Dartmouth campus force, who had concerns about the decision, and talked at length about the reasoning. And in his email to the whole UMD community, the chancellor thanked both the school police and regional officers whom he said “have a very difficult and often thankless job, and who do an outstanding job of keeping us safe, often in challenging situations.”
That’s been the crux of the debate.
How does society address the now many documented videos of police misbehavior with African-American men with the difficult police job of determining on the spot who is a clear and present threat and who is not.
The police, it seems, reflect ourselves. The majority of them are not racist but there are enough who are.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, a second movement called Blue Lives Matter, defending police has sprung up. And in the town of Dartmouth last summer a “blue light campaign” sprouted. Just after five Dallas police officers were executed by a mentally-ill individual sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, town residents began placing blue exterior lights on their homes as a show of support for officers.
By week’s end, the thorny issues that divide conservatives from progressives were on full display across the region. State Rep. Keiko Orrall of Lakeville said she would be paying “close attention” to UMass’s new policy. She hopes, she said, that the school adheres to the policy and allows all legitimate student groups to fly their flags.
When a Christian student group wants to fly their flag, will the university allow that? she asked. “It’s those types of questions, if you are thinking about a flag policy, that you really need to think about,” she said.
It’s true that church and state questions will inevitably force questions about whether flying a particular religion’s flag reflects UMass Dartmouth’s values. There’s bound to be disagreement.
And what about positive-minded but controversial secular groups like libertarians, or the green movement, gay rights groups or folks supporting the ethical treatment of animals? Whose values does the university represent when respectable groups disagree?
And if UMass Dartmouth is not supporting the groups themselves, what about their messages? Is “Let’s go green to get the world clean!” acceptable? What about “Hey ho, homophobia’s got to go!” Both ideas remain controversial, with significant minorities disagreeing.
These are tough questions and ones the university will have to face again if it’s going to stick to its idea that any group whose values reflect the university’s can fly its flag on campus.
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