‘Thin blue line’ flags on fire trucks across Massachusetts meet support, opposition after Hingham controversy

"This doesn't have anything (to do), as far as we're concerned, with Black Lives Matter."

Firefighters across Massachusetts are picking up where their colleagues in Hingham left off, vowing to fly a “thin blue line” American flag from their fire trucks in support of law enforcement after the display sparked controversy in the coastal community and was ultimately taken down last week.

The Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, in a July 30 letter to members, said one of the flags flown from fire engines in Hingham that was intended to honor the memory of Weymouth police Sgt. Michael Chesna, who was killed in the line of duty in 2018, will now tour departments around 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.”

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The flag was among those removed from Hingham fire apparatus at the agreement of the community’s fire and police chiefs and town administrator following a citizen complaint. Hingham Firefighters Local 2398 initially said union members would not comply with the orders, but members later decided to take down the flags themselves to ensure they were respectfully removed, the group said.

The flags were then given to Weymouth police. The flag was fashioned to Weymouth Fire Department’s Engine 3 Monday morning.

“In an act of solidarity, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, working in unison with the Weymouth Police union and Weymouth Fire Local 1616, will pick up the torch initially lit by Hingham Local 2398,”  MacKinnon wrote. “The thin blue line flag originally hung by Hingham firefighters in honor of Sgt. Chesna will be making a tour around Massachusetts to be flown from fire trucks in communities that support public safety.”

MacKinnon wrote that PFFM, alongside the Weymouth police and fire unions, will present the flag to the Chesna family when the tour concludes.

The “thin blue line” has been used for nearly a century to represent law enforcement officers in the United States, but has become a divisive symbol in recent years.

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The flag has emerged at recent rallies to support police held in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Some Hingham residents told their town selectmen last week they supported removing the flags because the symbol has been co-opted by white supremacists over the past several years.

Hingham firefighters and their supporters maintained though the flags flown from their trucks were only meant to honor Chesna.

“We take our line-of-duty deaths very seriously; we never forget. So for us, it had special meaning,” MacKinnon told the Boston Herald. “I realize that things mean different things to different people, but for us that’s what the flag meant — to memorialize Sgt. Chesna.”

According to MacKinnon, the tour has already garnered interest from nearly 100 people locally and as far as Canada. He told the newspaper he anticipated kicking off the tour this week with an accompanying honor guard.

The “thin blue line” flag, however, has not been met with the same enthusiasm in Somerville, where Mayor Joseph Curtatone is now at odds with first responders over the symbol.

After a tweet showed the flag hanging off the back of a local fire engine, Curtatone said Sunday night that the flags were removed from department vehicles.

They were not authorized to be flown, according to Curtatone, who wrote in his own tweet that officials were looking into how they were placed on the trucks.

“Sincerely hope the people who did this did not realize how hurtful it would be to people in our community,” Curtatone wrote.

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Thomas Ross, president of Somerville Fire Local 76, told Boston.com Monday the flags were put on trucks within the past several days to show support for police after what happened in Hingham.

Ross, who also serves as the District 6 vice president for PFFM, said he was disappointed by Curtatone’s decision. The flags were not a political statement, but rather a “symbol of respect” for law enforcement, especially those who were killed while on duty, he said.

“People are trying to make this juxtaposed to Black Lives Matter,” Ross said. “This doesn’t have anything (to do), as far as we’re concerned, with Black Lives Matter.”

Ross said he was working to learn more about what happened and was writing an official request to fly the flag. Fire department officials pointed to protocols prohibiting stickers and decals on fire engines as part of the decision to take down the flags, according to Ross.

A request for comment about how officials made their decision to take down the flags from a city spokesperson was not immediately returned Monday afternoon.

In the meantime, Ross criticized Curtatone over the decision, calling the mayor’s move “hypocritical.”

Curtatone has openly expressed his appreciation for first responders before, such as during the city’s annual 9/11 memorial ceremonies, Ross said.

“Then when you have an opportunity to support them, you turn them down,” Ross said.

He also highlighted how firefighters often rely on the support of local police as they carry out their own duties. The flags were only meant to represent local firefighters’ appreciation for their colleagues in blue, he said.

“They’re having a rough go of it right now,” Ross said.

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