Danvers town manager orders ‘thin blue line’ flags removed from fire trucks

DANVERS, Mass. — The town manager in Danvers ordered the ‘thin blue line’ flags displayed on the town’s fire trucks be removed.

Brian Barry, president of Danvers Firefighters Association Local 2038, said Acting Fire Chief Robert Amerault informed him Town Manager Steve Bartha requested all ‘thin blue line’ flags be removed from the town’s fire trucks.

The flags have long been used to honor police officers killed in the line of duty, but they have become a divisive symbol in recent years. Critics of the flags say they’re a sign of racism and white supremacy, most often used in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to end police brutality against Black people.

“The thin blue line flag means different things to different people, and it has long been an important symbol of support and solidarity for members of public safety departments and their families,” Bartha said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the symbol has also become a form of political speech in today’s social landscape that has the power to make marginalized members of our community feel unwelcome and unsafe, so this week I ordered them to be removed from Danvers fire apparatus.”

Barry said the firefighters started flying ‘thin blue line’ flags on the fire trucks after Weymouth Police Sergeant Michael Chesna was killed in the line of duty in July 2018. He said the flags were meant, “as a sign of support to the Chesna family as well as all law enforcement personnel in Danvers, throughout the Commonwealth, and the entire law enforcement community.”

He said over the past two years, the firefighters have received “countless expressions of gratitude” from police officers and the public for displaying the flags.

Barry said he reached out to Bartha to discuss the decision and to explain what the flags mean to the firefighters.

“The public safety community depends on our network of support each and every day,” Barry said. “This network, and the need for it, may be difficult to understand by an outsider, but I can assure you it means everything to us on the inside.”

Barry said he stressed the fire department’s long-stranding history of serving every member of the community without bias.

Bartha told him the town received one complaint over the past two years and the complaint referred to the flags as ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flags.

“The fact the complaint referred to the ‘thin blue line’ flags as ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flags is a clear sign they are trying to make this political,” Barry said. “This is not, and never will be, political to us. We are simply continuing to show our support for our brothers and sisters in blue and letting them know we will always be there for them.”

Barry said after talking with Bartha “it became crystal clear there was no changing his mind.”

Bartha said he reached his decision after consulting with the chairman of the town’s select board. He then notified the fire chief and police chief.

“As local government officials and public servants, our responsibility is to work in support of all residents of and visitors to Danvers regardless of their belief systems or lived experiences,” Bartha said. “When we as public servants, through speech, actions, or the symbols we display, have intentionally or unintentionally undermined the confidence of marginalized members of our community, we are obligated to act.”

Barry said he informed Bartha members of the firefighters’ union would not be the ones to take the flags off the trucks. Bartha ordered Amerault to have the flags removed by the end of the day Tuesday. Instead of instructing one of his members to do so and dealing with the consequences of them disobeying an order, Amerault removed the flags himself.

“That gesture was well received and will not be forgotten,” Barry said. “I would be remiss if I did not mention that Chief Amerault understands the true meaning of the ‘thin blue line,’ what it means to the members of his department, and what it means to everyone in public safety. He shares that passion with us.”

Bartha said his decision should not be viewed as a lack of support for the town’s police and fire departments.

“To the contrary, it is a decision intended to reaffirm our support and commitment to every single member of our community,” Bartha said. “Danvers is a community that has long supported its police and fire departments, and we are fortunate to have some of the best trained and best equipped officers and firefighters in the Commonwealth.”

The firefighters are looking to put the flags back into service and are offering them to residents who want to fly one in support of police.

Meantime, a person by the name Juan Estrada started an online petition titled, Demand the Danvers Town Hall to allow the Thin Blue Line flag to be on the Fire Apparatus.

Last month, town leaders in Hingham ignited a similar controversy when they ordered ‘thin blue line’ flags be removed from the town’s fire trucks after a citizen complaint.

The firefighters had also placed the flags on their trucks to honor Chesna.

Town leaders said the flags violated a town policy banning political messages from being displayed on town property. The firefighters’ union pushed back, saying “honoring the sacrifices made by the men and women of law enforcement is not political.”

The union initially refused to comply with the town’s order, but later took the flags down to ensure they were respectfully removed. They enlisted the help of Weymouth police officers who worked with Chesna to remove the flags.

The same day, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts (PFFM) sent a letter to members, saying one of the flags removed from the Hingham fire trucks would tour departments across the state.

“In light of recent events unfolding across the commonwealth and our nation, our brothers and sisters in blue have been under unprecedented and seemingly unrelenting attacks,” PFFM President Rich MacKinnon Jr. wrote in the letter. “This has occurred in the form of anti-labor legislation on Beacon Hill, anti-police rhetoric in the media, and overall negative sentiment towards the good men and women that put on a uniform every day and strive to protect and serve.”

The flag has since made stops at more than a dozen fire departments across the South Shore. On Tuesday, the flag visited the Stoughton Fire Department.

Once the tour concludes, the flag will be presented to Chesna’s family.

In Danvers, Barry noted this is not the first time the town’s firefighters have “taken steps to support others in the community and across America.” He said every Friday they wear red shirts with a yellow ribbon on the sleeve reading “Supporting Our Troops” to honor the men and women serving in our military.

“Are we going to stop wearing red shirts the moment one person complains that we are supporting our troops?” Barry asked.