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Pictures of a Thin Blue Line flag raised at an Orange County courthouse on Thursday amidst nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police raised a host of questions for Sheriff Don Barnes from local activists. 

The flag was originally dedicated to police officers years ago but has recently become popularized within Blue Lives Matter, a pro-law enforcement countermovement to Black Lives Matter, which seeks an end to police violence and systemic racism toward Black people in America.

An image of the flag outside the Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange appeared on Twitter Thursday, with activist groups like Chispa OC, CA Immigrant Youth and VietRISE criticizing Barnes, who himself has denounced Floyd’s death and the Minneapolis officers involved and called on his deputies in light of the incident to use “de-escalation strategies.”

Sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the flag was raised as part of an annual Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial Day ceremony that the department participates in, and that the flag was “completely unrelated” to the events in Minnesota and wasn’t a political statement in support of Blue Lives Matter. 

The ceremony is held every last Thursday in May, on an annual basis, according to the memorial ceremony’s website. Braun said the raising of the flag “has only to do with the celebration and honoring of Orange County’s peace officers and the 53 who have died in Orange County.”

Critics like local Santa Ana organizer Hairo Cortes called the use of the flag “tone deaf,” after news of Floyd’s death in police custody — and video of a white Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck — prompted demonstrations across the country. 

A similar protest is planned for Orange tomorrow at 1:00 p.m.

“Context matters,” Cortes said over the phone Friday. “We’ve had these multiple days of protests starting in Minneapolis, expanding across the country, and we can’t deny the association of the thin blue line flag with the Blue Lives Matter movement anymore.”

He called the flag “problematic on a normal day.”

Though the flag itself dates back before the start of the Blue Lives Matter movement, “as much as the thin blue line flag tries to be disassociated that, the reality is the two can’t be separated,” said Carlos Perea, a police reform advocate and Santa Ana’s first undocumented city commissioner. 

In early May, San Francisco’s police chief banned officers from wearing face coverings emblazoned with the thin blue line symbol, calling them divisive. This was after officers wore them while at a May Day protest, sparking complaints.

OC Sheriff Don Barnes in a May 28 memo said “the death of George Floyd was wrong,” and that “equally troubling” was the fact that “three officers stood by while their partner acted in a manner that contradicts his sworn commitment to protect and serve.” He said what occurred in the video “goes beyond the scope of any tactic we are trained to use.”

In the statement, he added the department trains deputies to “use de-escalation strategies,” though training and policies “are only as good as the people entrusted with carrying them out.”

“I want the community to know that our department does not use these techniques, nor do we teach them at our Academy,” he said in a tweet with the statement attached.

Braun said the flag is “a national symbol to represent the brave men and women who gave their lives defending individuals in not only Orange County, but also across the nation.”

Bobby McDonald, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Orange County, said he wasn’t yet ready to comment on the flag Friday afternoon. The chamber advocates and promotes the general welfare and progress of the local Black community through economic development.

Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, didn’t respond to requests for comment through a spokesperson Friday.

Cortes said issues of police violence, accountability and oversight hit home in Orange County, across cities like Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Fullerton. 

In Anaheim, criticisms around police use of force on Latinos have long been part of the city’s history, and largely gave rise to one of the county’s most prominent Latino political venues, Los Amigos de Orange County.

Anaheim became the first Orange County city to establish a civilian police oversight board, formed in 2014 in response to protests and unrest in the city following the fatal shootings of two Anaheim men by police officers two years earlier.

And in Fullerton in 2012, three council members were voted out of their seats following the scandal around the police beating death of homeless man Kelly Thomas. The incident became one of the county’s most notorious police brutality incidents and made national news headlines. 

In Santa Ana, ongoing debates have played out over the role of police in politics and City Council elections and campaigns. This month, Republican councilwoman Ceci Iglesias was removed from her position as councilwoman in a recall election that resulted from a year-long campaign funded mostly by the city’s police union, which represents officers during labor negotiations. She had been publicly clashing with the union over controversial pay raises granted to officers last year.

In October, Santa Ana considered becoming the second city behind Anaheim to establish a police review board, at the request of Iglesias — who at the time had started clashing with the union — though council members ultimately opted not to.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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