PEMBROKE — On a recent Sunday afternoon, well over 100 people gathered on the town green to hoist black-and-blue American flags, pledge their support for law enforcement, and promote a first-time Republican candidate for a state legislative seat.
They wore hats and T-shirts endorsing President Trump, repeated his promise to keep small towns safe from supposed anarchists, and handed out pins memorializing Michael Chesna, a Weymouth police officer killed on duty two years ago.
“This is why we’re here, to honor police,” Tatyana Semyrog, the candidate for office, told the crowd.
This election season, campaign stumps and so-called “Back the Blue” rallies in support of police are one in the same, drawing boisterous crowds to town greens across Massachusetts and Trump campaign stops nationwide.
Amid a historic reckoning over law enforcement in America, few subjects are as polarizing, the supposed stakes laid out in small-town rallies and presidential debates: You either support police and the rule of law, or, in Trump’s view, you risk riots and mayhem in your back yard. It’s pitched as Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter, peace versus anarchy.
“This is people seeing the world very differently,” said Jamie Longazel, an associate professor of political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who researches Trumpism and the Back the Blue movement. “There’s a tension within this … What’s pretty clear — it’s explicit — is that it’s a rebuttal to Black Lives Matter.“
The divide has erupted in heated protests, neighborhood disputes, and legislative showdowns. The Massachusetts GOP has declared supporting police one of its top policy platforms, while area police unions have roundly endorsed Republican candidates.
The movement has also caused sharp divisions within police departments. Associations that represent minority officers have pushed back, refusing to support this brand of identity politics while noting that support for law enforcement, and wanting an end to brutality, is not necessarily a political choice.
In recent weeks, Trump has pushed the law-and-order messaging even further, appearing at a rally in Wisconsin in front of a massive “thin blue line” flag, which is meant to signify law enforcement as the barrier between anarchy and law and order.
He’s portrayed inner cities as crime-ridden wastelands, and suburban areas as under potential assault, comments that critics say have racial connotations. His campaign also released a provocative video featuring images of cities ablaze while former officers declare a Joe Biden presidency a danger to America.
“If you support the police, support Donald Trump,” says one man, who identified himself as a veteran police officer.
Biden, who tapped a former prosecutor in naming US Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, has denounced the violent protests taking hold across the country, though he has agreed that police reforms are needed.
The reconfiguration of the flag with the blue line has sparked widespread controversy within itself — the US Flag Code notes that the American flag shouldn’t be modified for any reason. And some view the flag and the “Blue Lives Matter” mantra as overtly racist.
Trump’s messaging, and the juxtaposition of the flag at rallies, has concerned some historians and political analysts who see it as a far-right hijacking of a genuine grassroots movement to support local police, a dog whistle to galvanize the president’s supporters in the name of law and order. That, in turn, analysts say, has muddied the original intent of police reform.
“That’s what politicians have done to it, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Heather Richardson, an American history professor at Boston College. “I don’t think virtually anyone is against all police officers. I don’t think that’s what anyone is saying.”
Andrea Cabral, the state’s former public safety secretary, questioned why voters have to be left with a binary choice, in which sincere calls for police reform for greater transparency and accountability are seen as siding against good police officers.
“Supporting police and supporting good policing shouldn’t be two separate things,” said Cabral, who also worked as a sheriff and as a prosecutor. “If the purpose of policing is to protect and serve everyone, why is it perceived as for us or against us.”
She said the social justice movement that is taking hold is based on historic demands for equality and against oppression, two intrinsic rights that have gone overlooked.
“There’s context to these protests, there’s history to these protests, there’s deaths and suffering behind these protests that has nothing to do with good policing,” she said.
Still, lines have been drawn.
Last summer, some Danvers residents erupted in anger when the town forced firefighters to remove a thin blue line flag from a fire truck because the flag violated town policy against political expressions on municipal property; they unsuccessfully sought a town meeting vote to overturn the decision. A similar controversy played out in Hingham.
The ranks of the Back the Blue movement run the gamut from friends and family of police to staunch Republicans and, in some cases, far-right extremists. Many consider support a figurative badge of honor, calling out officials who have endorsed police reforms and, in their view, abandoned public safety.
“It’s wholesome, it’s law and order,” said Hal Shurtleff, a West Roxbury resident whose family runs a Christian values education camp. He joined a pro-Trump ward committee and supported West Roxbury’s first major Back the Blue rally at the Holy Name rotary in June.
“I was proud of West Roxbury, to see so many people,” he said, though he noted that there were clashes with counter-protestors. “The cops shouldn’t be looked as the bad guys,” he said.
In response, local residents have since held Monday night vigils at the same rotary in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As police unions here and across the country have roundly endorsed the Republican ticket, they’ve also caused unease for Black and brown officers within their ranks, many of whom argue that they do not share the president’s views, and that the union endorsements don’t speak for them.
One chapter of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers in Pennsylvania encouraged hundreds of members to stop paying dues to the Fraternal Order of Police because of the union’s Trump endorsement. The national association also lashed out at police unions in New York for endorsing Trump without full input of its members.
Charles P. Wilson, the national chairman, said most of the NABLEO members recognize the benefits of police reforms, particularly in Black and brown communities, and oppose Trump’s rhetoric. He said his organization wants to stem police brutality.
“What people have to recognize about Black Lives Matter is their principal argument is [against] police brutality, and the lack of police accountability when Black and brown people are being shot or beat up by law enforcement officers,” he said. “People in communities of color have a very firm grasp on the way that law enforcement has habitually and traditionally treated us.”
In Watertown, what began as a grassroots effort to support police raised more than $35,000 to produce 12,000 lawn signs that have been distributed to 25 states.
Olivia Winsor, a firefighter in Watertown whose boyfriend is a police officer, said the effort originated as a small gesture to encourage police officers who felt under attack amid calls for reform.
“Near and far, people were saying, I want one, I want one, I want one,” she said of the signs, which spell out “We Thank & Support Our Law Enforcement Officers” in bold blue letters.
Winsor, 23, said she never intended to be political.
“People were saying, because I’m doing this, I’m against the Black Lives Matter movement, which is not true, in every sense of the word,“ she said. ”For me, I just support the police that do their job, and do their job the right way.”
The groundswell of support has helped slow, and perhaps even blunt, proposed police reforms in Massachusetts, which proponents have characterized as necessary and long-needed.
Republican Governor Charlie Baker unveiled police reform legislation in June that would require certification for police officers and make them more liable to lawsuits for negligence. Amid strong push back from the police unions and supporters, the bill has stalled at the State House.
In advance of Tuesday’s elections, the state’s Republican party secured pledges from dozens of conservative candidates for state and federal office, who vowed to reject or repeal what they consider unjust police reform laws.
“It’s sad that supporting law enforcement and first responders has become a partisan issue,” said Joe Abasciano, who chairs the Republican Party’s Law Enforcement and Family Coalition, “but I am thankful that this slate of GOP candidates in Massachusetts [is] proudly standing up for the men and women that protect and serve our communities.”
Abasciano is a Boston police officer, former corrections officer, and Iraq Marine veteran, though he said his statement was restrained to his work with the Republican Party.
At the recent Pembroke rally, the crowd was nearly all, if not exclusively, white. Among the demonstrators, current and former officers and Republican backers saw their mission as intertwined.
Paul Sullivan, a retired Boston police officer of 32 years who organized the event, said it was intended to counter calls for “defunding” police — the catch-all term for shifting some police funds to other, more social-service oriented programs. Sullivan, and others, have taken this to mean stripping police of their funding, what they called an extremist approach.
“The silent majority want the police,” said Sullivan, who’s attended rallies across the state.
So on this afternoon, Sullivan and other rally-goers sought to make their voices heard, waving Trump and Back the Blue and American and blue-line flags and honking horns.
At one point a fire truck and police cruiser caravan, with lights flashing, pulled into the parking lot. They escorted the event’s guests of honor, the family members of fallen officer Michael Chesna, who was fatally shot on duty in 2018.