It was barely the second hour of Long Island’s biggest pro-police rally of the year and the crowd was already growing restless. Attendees had proudly raised their hands during a roll call gauging membership in various departments — roughly a quarter indicated they were current or former NYPD — and stood at attention through a lengthy opening ceremony of patriotic song and Christian prayer. They cheered for Rep. Peter King as he gingerly took the makeshift flatbed stage and pledged loyalty to the badge.When Jonathan Gilliam, an imposing ex-NAVY Seal, asked the group if they were aware that there is a civil war happening in this country, that they are right now “living in a war zone,” the reply was resounding: “Yes!”
“Theres already a civil war, we just haven’t gotten to guns yet,” Jonathan Gillian, a former NAVY Seal and frequent Hannity guest, tells the crowd. “You are living in a war zone.” pic.twitter.com/ZIzy0HYdLX— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) July 25, 2020
But as the summer afternoon sun beat down on the roughly 1,000 attendees — most of them middle age or older, nearly all of them white — their collective attention turned elsewhere. Word was spreading that the Black Lives Matter counter-protesters had finally arrived.A contingent of pro-Trump bikers at the outskirts of the demonstration moved first, walking in unison to face off with the activists. Other demonstrators soon followed.On the edge of Eisenhower Park, the Nassau County Police Department formed a wall to separate the rival factions. Dressed in all black, a few dozen members of Black White Brown United raised their fists and chanted “Black lives matter.”The pro-police side shouted their standard rebuttal: “All lives matter.” On this new terrain, the group seemed invigorated, at once surprised and proud to find themselves in the majority. They shouted and laughed at the counter-demonstrators, most of them young people of color. “Don’t you have a store to loot?” a white man brandishing an American flag cried.
After a few dozen Black Lives Matter protesters showed up, most of the rally peeled off to confront them. A uniformed lieutenant with Nassau County PD thanked the Blue Lives Matter demonstrators for coming out and tells them the counter protesters are “just misguided.” pic.twitter.com/hPtPZ8HRwu— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) July 25, 2020
Members of the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group, circled the area like security guards. Several people held signs and flags promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory, along with Pepe, an alt-right meme.Lieutenant Brown, an on-duty member of the Nassau County Police Department, offered fist bumps to the pro-cop side, and thanked them for coming out to show their support. He urged the crowd to ignore the Black Lives Matter protesters, whom he described as “not all bad, just misguided.”There was a brief moment when violence seemed imminent. An older white woman threatened to “beat the hell” out of a young Black woman, eliciting an invitation to cross the line from the group of Black Lives Matter protesters. “Don’t think I won’t. I’m not afraid of y’all,” the white woman responded, now flanked by men with middle fingers up. People took their phones out expectantly, but the moment soon passed.After about thirty minutes, the Black Lives Matter protesters decided to leave the park, marching in formation past the jeering pro-law enforcement crowd. A handful of police vehicles followed them. Within minutes, almost all of the Blue Lives Matter demonstrators had returned to their cars and driven away.The Thin Blue Line AdvancesHistorians of American policing trace the modern pro-law enforcement movement back to William Parker, the powerful police chief in postwar Los Angeles, who frequently and hyperbolically warned about the dangers of anti-police sentiment. During his sixteen years atop the LAPD, he brushed off attempts at police accountability as a Trojan horse for godless communism, and made enemies of civil rights leaders. It was Parker who first used the phrase “Thin Blue Line” to describe the fragile boundary between civilization and anarchy upheld by police.In 2014, a white University of Michigan student was watching the street protests sparked by the police killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown when he decided to turn Parker’s words into a flag, as a show of support for police. “The black above represents citizens,” the student, Andrew Jacob, later told Harper’s, “and the black below represents criminals.”That same winter, following the fatal ambush shooting of NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Officer Wenjian Liu, a group of former and current police officers created a Facebook group, and later a news site, dubbed Blue Lives Matter.The founders said they wanted to speak out against the “vilification of law enforcement” they observed from the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. They claimed they were “motivated by the heroic actions of Darren Wilson,” the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown. The movement soon adopted the Thin Blue Line as their flag.
A Thin Blue Line flag flies behind an NYPD officer during a rally in Bay Ridge
STEPHANIE KEITH / GOTHAMIST
Today, Jacob runs a thriving retail business selling pro-police merchandise. The Blue Lives Matter news site now boasts over 2 million followers on Facebook — the central meeting ground for pro-police supporters, akin in some ways to the role of Twitter in early Black Lives Matter organizing. In recent weeks, their articles detailing attacks on cops and the alleged hypocrisy of Black Lives Matter protests were repeatedly among Facebook’s best-performing posts.As protests against the police killing of George Floyd have surged across the country, pro-law enforcement rallies bearing the name Blue Lives Matter have proliferated as well. Many have attracted counter-protesters, and the ensuing street battles have at times turned ugly and racist.During one recent demonstration in South Jersey, a group of Blue Lives Matter supporters, including a local corrections officer, were caught on video reenacting George Floyd’s murder. When passing marchers chanted “Black Lives Matter,” they replied: “…to no one.”The confrontations in New York City have primarily taken place on the residential streets of South Brooklyn’s historically white neighborhoods, far from the center of this summer’s mass marches against police brutality.During a tense exchange in Marine Park last weekend, a woman on the pro-cop side was seen grabbing a younger Black Lives Matter activist by the throat. Last month, participants in a Blue Lives Matter rally in Dyker Heights shouted racist and sexist threats at counter-protesters.At a demonstration in Bay Ridge the following day, eggs and insults flew from both sides, and a Blue Lives Matter supporter was seen on video punching a woman in the face.
Blue lives matter protesters attack black lives matter protesters in Brooklyn today. This girl was almost knocked out. pic.twitter.com/2lyyq2V0wK— Nicholas Isabella (@NycStormChaser) July 13, 2020
NYPD officers carefully escorted the attacker into a police van, and later used a Taser on an apparently non-violent Black Lives Matter protester. Several people took note of the cops’ positioning during the two events — facing the Black Lives Matter activists, with their backs toward the pro-cop groups.”At no point do they turn around and look at the other side that’s inciting all this violence,” Abdullah Younus, a Bay Ridge resident and Black Lives Matter supporter, told Gothamist. “We see it over and over, and they wonder why the fuck we think they’re racist.”A Veil To Throw Over One’s White Racial InterestLeaders of the Blue Lives Matter movement are quick to describe their movement as apolitical and race-neutral. They take pains to point out that their support for hard-working police officers does not mean they oppose the fight for racial justice, or that they are racists themselves.“The event we held was not an anti-Black Lives Matter rally. It wasn’t an anti-anybody rally,” said Austin Glickman, an NYPD officer who lives on Long Island and helped to organize the late July event at Eisenhower Park. “It’s become so politicized, even though we never asked for this.”But Joseph Darda, an English professor at Texas Christian University who’s tracked Blue Lives Matter and its antecedents, says it’s impossible to separate the role of race from the overwhelmingly white pro-police movement.“If you look at the 200 year history of U.S. policing, it becomes apparent that every time white people turn to a defense of police and start associating their identities with police, it’s often occurring at the same time as heightened Black activism,” Darda told Gothamist.“This idea of ‘blueness’ is a thin veil to throw over one’s white racial interest,” he added. “It’s a convenient deniability if you don’t want to be lumped in with the David Dukes of the world.”Many scholars note that the modern American police department has roots in the Slave Patrols, in which groups of armed white men would terrorize Black people as a means of controlling the slave population. The patrols continued through Reconstruction, with help in some places from the federal military, state militias, and the Klu Klux Klan.In 2017, as white supremacists marched through Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally, demonstrators were observed carrying Thin Blue Line flags. According to audio recordings and chat logs later obtained by Reveal, Neo-Nazi organizers of the event privately discussed avoiding overt symbols of white supremacy, such as the swastika, in order to “gain sympathy for a pro-white rally.” Earlier this summer, the flag appeared at a protest in Berlin held by the extreme far-right group, Alternative for Germany.
A man holds a ‘Thin Blue Line’ during an extreme right-wing demonstration in Berlin
Joseph Imperatrice, an NYPD sergeant and co-founder of the nonprofit Blue Lives Matter NYC, dismissed any suggestion of racism within the movement as “complete nonsense.” Those who’ve taken to the streets to support police in recent months, he said, were speaking for a “silent majority” of Americans who are “pro-patriotic, pro-law enforcement, pro-law and order.”According to Imperatrice, the recent interest in Blue Lives Matter is being driven by fears about the rising crime rate in New York City, as well as new legislation, including bail reform and the bill criminalizing the use of police chokeholds, which he says has emboldened criminals and put officers in danger.“It’s definitely the hardest it’s been in my 15 years,” Imperatrice told Gothamist. “People are fed up, cops are fed up. They’re the ones risking their lives every day to put someone behind bars.”Police leaders and city officials don’t completely agree on what’s causing the spike in deadly gun violence in New York City, which corresponds with a rise in shootings nationally. Despite the NYPD’s insistence otherwise, there’s no evidence that changes to bail laws have meaningfully contributed to the increase. Other officials, like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, have accused the NYPD of an intentional work slowdown, based on data showing fewer arrests and slower response times in recent months.Like several police officers who spoke to Gothamist, Imperatrice pointed to a new hesitance among police officers, who he says must now consider whether their actions could result in criminal prosecution.“It’s not just ‘Holy crap you might be executed.’It’s that I could show up and lose my job for following my training,” he said. “You’re worried you’re going to be put in handcuffs now.”During a closed-door meeting last month, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan reportedly told officers that he’d been assured by city district attorneys that they would not be prosecuted for violating the chokehold law.A Poor White Guy Trying To Get To WorkFor many backers of the Blue Lives Matter movement, their central complaint is about respect, and the perceived shortage of it shown to law enforcement during the current national reckoning over racist police violence. This disrespect is directly related to rising crime rates, supporters say, because officers are too demoralized or scared to do their jobs properly. As with similar arguments mounted by William Parker in mid-century Los Angeles, racial resentment often lurks just below the surface.“I travel to New York City and I can tell you right now, in the last few weeks, I have seen black men chasing whites down the street telling them their lives are messed up. They’re spitting on them. It’s a disgrace,” said Joe Fish, a white iron worker and former correction officers on Rikers Island, during a recent Blue Lives Matter demonstration. “A poor white guy is trying to go to work and black men are chasing him down the street.”He described Black Lives Matter protesters as “wild animals,” and suggested that people who support defunding the police might soon change their mind once they find themselves “getting raped in an alleyway.”Such myopia about the state of the city is not out of place at Blue Lives Matter rallies, nor within the NYPD itself. Dire warnings of cowardly politicians courting chaos, long spewed by the city’s police unions, are now shared from the highest levels of the NYPD.Last weekend the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, the largest police union in the country, offered its first ever presidential endorsement to Donald Trump. The following day, Trump retweeted a supporter’s message that cities with Democratic leaders should be left to “rot.”Jay Cohen, a retired NYPD detective still active in his union, said he understood where the president was coming from.“That’s the current sentiment of a lot of people right now who are living in these cities,” Cohen told Gothamist on Sunday night. “When you defund the police, when you tie the police hands, you’re going to get a massive spike in crime. It’s basically anarchy and chaos.”In early June, at the height of the George Floyd protests, Cohen co-founded a Facebook group, Standing Up For NYC, intended to protect neighborhoods in the five boroughs from looting and rioting. After their fears of mass violence didn’t materialize, the administrators shifted the group’s mandate, helping to organize and promote Blue Lives Matter events throughout the five boroughs and Long Island.A few weeks ago, they applied for nonprofit status, which will allow them to raise money for police officers and their families. The group is also suing the de Blasio administration for allowing a Black Lives Matter mural on Fifth Avenue, while refusing to fast-track a Blue Lives Matter equivalent.Despite the changes in objective, the 12,000-member organization has kept their initial description. It offers a grim portrait of New York, a place “on the brink of annihilation by criminals, anarchists, rioters and looters running rampant throughout the streets without fear or consequence.”“New York City needs our help,” the description continues, “as if it were a lone wounded wolf in dire need of rescue by the pack.”