FLEMINGTON, NJ - There may be some question as to whether the blue line painted down Main Street four years ago was divisive, but there is no question that its removal, especially at such a controversial time, has split Flemington in two.
Mayor Betsy Driver shared her decision to remove the line the day of a planned protest for Black Lives Matter and in memory of George Floyd in a Twitter post.
“This morning before most of Flemington woke up, I had the divisive blue line running down Main Street painted over. It’s time we put that shameful dividing line behind us,” she tweeted.
Flemington Police Chief Jerry Rotella could not be reached for comment, but he stood in lock step with Driver in support of the march. He also issued a statement condemning what took place in Minnesota on May 25.
The Black Lives Matter rally organized by local high school students drew over 1,800 people. It was peaceful and without violent or destructive incidents. The controversy that followed it stemmed from the removal of the blue line, not the people who gathered to let their voices be heard.
“Police presence was calm, appreciated and appropriate,” said council president Caitlin Giles-McCormick about the rally.
She explained that local police were not dressed in military garb, they were just present and prepared if needed. And they were needed, as nine people were affected by the heat and received assistance from the police.
Giles-McCormick explained, “So many people report positive and often above and beyond interactions with our police, but we are not impervious to national events and societal impacts.”
She added that the blue line was simply a symbol of support, but hypothesized that people who hadn’t had any interaction with borough police weren’t differentiating them from police in the news.
Council vice president Kim Tilly said she heard from more people over the weekend then she ever has before.
“And every one of them wants me to choose a side. I either need to support our local police department or support the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “Well guess what, that’s not going to happen. Somehow, we have to come together as a community and find a way to support our Flemington Police Deptartment and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
The same observation was made by councilwoman Jessica Hand, who said she also received numerous calls and emails about the removal of the blue line.
“Some of them were upset that it’s gone and some were happy,” she said. “I think we can show our support to police officers in more productive ways.”
With great emotion, councilman Jeremy Long read a prepared statement. He said, “everything worked [during the protest] because everyone worked together.”
Long proposed an action, something he said would be constructive and create an opportunity out of a crisis. He said he wants to set up a listening session with the police chief and any officers that would like to offer input and then share that information with the community.
“We need to listen to understand,” he said.
In a telephone interview before Monday’s council meeting, Driver said she acted in response to many people who said they felt threatened by that blue line. It was “the perfect storm,” she said, regarding the timing. “Main Street businesses are about to reopen, the protest was going to be held here and I wanted everyone to feel welcome.”
She added that she showed her support for the police department by negotiating a “good and fair” three-year contract, by making sure there is a place to house them and by not merging them with the township police under a shared service contract.
“I am a supporter of everybody in this town,” she said.
The resolution that allowed for the blue line to be painted on Main Street expired at the end of 2016, after it was initially painted that year. It was not renewed and it is against state law.
“As mayor, I have the power to ensure our roads conform to state rules and regulations,” she said.
Councilman Michael Harris asked the mayor point blank if she said anything about convening a “Citizen Review Board of the police.”
Driver said she did not, and Harris asked if that is in the works or if it planned. This time, the mayor didn’t offer a denial.
“I think that’s premature,” she said, leaving the door open.
When Harris said he had a written statement from her saying that a citizen review board was planned, the mayor said that is not what was said. During the meeting, she searched for an email and read that what she said was that she hoped to create a citizen commission to give tenants, immigrants and seniors a voice.
Harris never confirmed whether that was the email to which he had referred.
Councilman Chris Runion told the mayor he learned about her removal of the blue line Saturday night on Facebook.
“I’m a little disappointed and frustrated that the decision to remove the blue line didn’t come to the council for a vote,” he said. “This was a particularly controversial move that has upset the community and it reflects on all of us. By not coming to us, you denied us the voice we were elected to provide and indirectly denied our residents of that voice.”
Driver said that in the same way she doesn’t need council approval to fix potholes or paint yellow lines down Stangl Road, she didn’t need its approval to remove the blue line. The funds would come out of the road deptartment budget, she said, but she didn’t have a cost estimate for the work yet.
Two residents spoke when the council meeting was opened for public comments.
Rob Wall said that he, “wholeheartedly disagreed with the removal of the blue line.” He said, for him, it was a sign of respect and removing it was a “slap in the face” to the borough police.
Adrienne Fusaro had the opposite reaction. She thanked the mayor for removing the blue line because, she said, she saw it as a hostile and vindictive indicator of the heart of the then  council against non-white residents.
While there were only two comments by the public at the meeting, there were hundreds of them on the Internet, and, again, the comments proved how the removal of the blue line polarized the community.
On one of the Facebook group sites, John Tiger, president of the Fraternal Order of Police #182, shared his disapproval of the mayor’s action in a letter. It drew over 700 comments and over 900 shares.
He began by clarifying that what happened to George Floyd was “blatantly wrong,” and said, “it violates our training, and our oaths. This horrible event should not have been allowed to take place. We are trained to not do what was depicted in that video, or to allow another officer to do the same. We will never support brutal, or corrupt, police officers.”
That said, Tiger explained that the very officers that the blue line was a tribute to took the mayor’s insult and yet continued to do their jobs.
Using Driver’s words, he said, “…put this shameful dividing line behind us? That line represents first and foremost the sacrifice of officers across our great nation. Well over a hundred police officers die every year in performance of their sworn duties. That line also represents the fine officers of your police department. You should applaud their service.”
Again, he repeated the mayor’s words.
“Your officers are that line,” he said. “And the same day that you covered up ‘that shameful dividing line,’ those officers stood in that line while crowds of people exercised their rights in your streets. Streets that were kept safe by ‘that shameful line.’ While you pandered to a crowd of people exercising their rights, ‘that shameful dividing line’ protected you and the marchers. Those officers diverted traffic, protected businesses and homes and still handled all of the everyday calls for service that happened. On the periphery of your town, dozens of other members of ‘that shameful dividing line’ waited to respond in case the peaceful rally became anything but that. And I am proud to say that the residents of your town, our county and all of the citizens who exercised their rights that day were shining examples of freedom in action. They peaceably assembled to seek redress for their grievances.”
Tiger summed up, “I am sure that your citizens are proud that your officers have much more conviction for their beliefs then you do for yours. You may have painted over that thin blue line. But you will never erase it. Those officers are what stands between right and wrong. They are the ones that stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. And they will still be there to answer any call for help, whether you think they are ‘shameful’ or not.”