‘Tone-deaf’: Councilor sorry for sparking backlash over gift of ‘thin blue line’ flag

  • Fire Chief David Mottor, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, City Councilor Owen Zaret and Police Chief Robert Alberti take a photo around Zaret’s gift, which sparked a social media backlash. OWEN ZARET EASTHAMPTON CITY COUNCILOR/FACEBOOK

Staff Writer
Published: 8/31/2019 6:19:20 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A piece of art gifted by City Councilor Owen Zaret to the city’s chief first responders garnered backlash on social media late last week after some citizens decried the gift’s symbolic message as racist — prompting Zaret to acknowledge being “tone-deaf” regarding the image.

On Thursday evening, Zaret posted on Facebook a photo of himself, Fire Chief David Mottor, Police Chief Robert Alberti and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle around a piece of art depicting a black-and-white American flag, with one half-red and half-blue stripe representing fire and police departments. Zaret presented it to Mottor and Alberti for display in the city’s Public Safety Complex.

“May it be a reminder to all of their lives that they risk every day, the great work they do, and how well they work together,” Zaret wrote on the post, noting the flag was created by local artist Dave Murrett.

Commenters immediately took to the post, saying how the “thin blue line” the art depicted had become emblematic of “Blue Lives Matter,” a movement that advocates for the prosecution of police murders as hate crimes. The movement arose in response to “Black Lives Matter,” a campaign against police brutality and systemic racism in policing toward black people.

“This is awful. Shocking that a city councilor would gift such a problematic flag to the city — a flag that represents white supremacy — makes me concerned about the decisions you make as a public official,” one person wrote in response to the photo.

“Original intent of the blue line is irrelevant, it now represents racism. Just as the Confederate flag does even if that was not the original intent,” wrote another.

Not all were upset. One person commented, “Amazing work with those flags. Very kind gift.”

Zaret has since apologized and said on Facebook that his intent was solely to illustrate appreciation and collaboration between the two departments.

“Unfortunately, recent events have resulted in a conflation of this symbol with white supremacy,” he wrote in a comment on the post. “This was not the original intended meaning, and it was not the message intended behind this artistic rendering.”

“I apologize that my actions directly caused such division, where my intention was to bring people together,” he wrote in a separate post.

In an interview with the Gazette on Saturday, Zaret further explained that the symbol of the “thin blue line” had existed before the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, saying he meant it to represent the work police do and the lives they have lost while in the line of duty.

“It was never my intention to upset members of the community or make anyone feel marginalized or unsafe,” he said. “I simply wanted to express how much I respect police and fire and the work they do.”

A person who is “passionate” about social justice, Zaret said he is “deeply anti-racist,” and that he takes the problem of white supremacy seriously.

“I’ve become aware that there are some groups with racist intentions that have co-opted the symbol​​​​​,” he said.

Learning opportunity

He noted the flag also has a thin red line, which he said was meant to also express appreciation to firefighters and the dangerous work they do. The art is currently on display in the city’s Public Safety Complex, Zaret said.

“I think our police and fire do an amazing job with our city,” he said. “In contrast with what we are seeing in some cases nationally, we have a very engaged police department, as is our fire department.”

Calling the backlash “a learning opportunity,” Zaret said he saw a unique occasion for community discussion on the issue. Already, he said he has spoken with members of the community who have brought up concerns with the symbolic message some see in the flag image.

“I may have clearly been a little tone-deaf, even though I had good intentions,” he said. “I’m not a perfect person, but I think the work I’ve done and my actions on behalf of the people and the city have set a precedent.”

Mayor LaChapelle said Saturday that she believes Zaret simply intended to show appreciation for the work of first responders — and that she perceived the offering “as a gift.”

She reiterated her support for the police and fire departments in Easthampton, noting that they’re “very important public safety jobs.”

But LaChapelle said it was the duty of a “responsible government” to constantly question itself on the question of equity across all facets of public affairs.

“There is no room for discrimination and hate in those jobs,” LaChapelle said.

The conversations online should not be dismissed, she said. Instead, LaChapelle called for increased dialogue on the subject. Already, boards such as the Community Relations Committee have been discussing similar issues including sanctuary cities, she said.

As for the city’s first responders, LaChapelle said she held them to a high standard.

“I feel very confident that our fire and police are looking very hard on how they conduct themselves,” she said.

Fire Chief Mottor declined to comment for this story. Police Chief Alberti could not be reached after multiple attempts by telephone Saturday.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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