FLEMINGTON, NJ — A Pittstown area woman, in response to Flemington Borough Mayor Betsy Driver’s decision to have the controversial blue line down the center of Main Street removed, organized a protest in support of law enforcement Saturday at the old courthouse that ended in attendees using chalk to draw a temporary replacement line.
“I just felt it was really disrespectful to our officers to have the blue line removed in the wee hours of the morning, and then to (have the mayor) call it ‘shameful,’ so I really just want the officers nationwide to know we support them, in spite of the couple bad eggs out there,” said rally organizer Ruth Wittrien.
On June 6, Driver announced that the “divisive” blue line running down Main Street for several blocks had been painted over. The line had been there since 2016 as a tribute to the town's police officers, and Driver contended she had it removed in response to growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.
Driver has said the line also violates NJDOT highway marking code, and, by law, cannot be put back.
“To be clear, we never asked for the line to be here, we didn’t ask for the line to be removed,” said Cpl. Brian McNally, who is the spokesman for the department. “But, in these uncharted waters that we’re dealing with, in the law enforcement world right now, it is nice to see the community’s support.”
Jerry Rotella is the chief of the department, and Driver holds the title of “police commissioner,” but McNally noted, “the important thing to understand about the way the borough’s government is set up, is she is the liaison between the chief of police and the borough council. The chief of police is in charge of the department.”
It was only a few days after the removal of the line that the Flemington Borough Police Department launched an investigation into a case of alleged vandalism involving blue paint found in between a small section of the double yellow line on Main Street in front of the Flemington Borough Police Department. That was drawn over again to cover the blue paint the following day.
At the conclusion of Saturday’s protest, which drew a couple of hundred people, Wittrien offered blue chalk to attendees who wanted to help restore the blue line on a temporary basis, so that it would not be considered vandalism, “because it washes away in the rain,” she said.
With the newly drawn chalk, the blue line temporarily spanned between the double yellow line from 56 Main Street, past the old courthouse and police department, to the Flemington Borough Library at 118 Main Street.
The coloring of the chalked blue line was the final chapter of the rally that lasted more than an hour.
Driver, who was not in attendance, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday evening.
The "Support for Law Enforcement Officers Nationwide" rally began at 2 p.m. when the group of protesters began assembling in front of Unity Bank on Fulper Road. About 30 minutes later, the group marched a couple blocks down Main Street to the old Hunterdon County Courthouse.
“We’re here to support the Flemington Borough Police Department and law enforcement in general, these guys put their lives on the line every day,” said Susan Emanuelo, of Delaware Township, whose husband, Frank, who also was in attendance, is a retired lieutenant with the state police. “They’re getting spit on right now. It’s ridiculous. Not every police officer is a bad person, and others have to realize that right now.”
A truck pulling an old 1964 Raritan Township Fire Company REO Engine, along with Thin Blue Line and Thin Red Line American Flags, led the protestors, followed shortly behind a couple of attendees who held up signs with a headshot of Driver and a blue line over her mouth. The signs had messages on the back like, “Driv’er Outta Here” and “Betsy Driver is Flemington’s worst nightMAYOR.”
Many protestors wore red, white and blue clothing, while others brought signs that said: “We love the Red, White & Blue,” “Flemington Police Matter” and “Repaint the Line.” As they walked down the road, most chanted, “Thank you Blue!”
In attendance were members of the Hunterdon County Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 188 and many others in support of law enforcement.
Wittrien gave some remarks atop the courthouse steps, focusing on unity and maintaining respect for law enforcement.
She said not to engage in any other “threats” against the protest’s primary message.
“I brought you all together to tell you that the blue line is important, that our officers are important, but so is every other person,” she said. “Just because our differences are just that - differences - doesn’t mean we are right and they’re wrong, doesn’t mean they’re right and we are wrong. It means we all have opinions. And it’s ok. But we need to respect each other’s opinion.”
Kathleen Zemlachenko, of Raritan Township, shared a positive story about the role of law enforcement in her life, when a family member was going through a “severe mental health crisis situation,” and how police assisted in transporting this family member to the hospital.
Volunteers presented Flemington Patrolman Corey Garrabrant with a Thin Blue Line flag on behalf of the men and women who appreciate law enforcement, to hang wherever the department may choose, which was met with loud applause and cheers. Eagle Fence and Supply Company donated the flag.
Besides Garrabrant, there were other officers in attendance at the rally, but they did not actively participate.
“We’re here to support the community,” McNally said. “We’re here to keep everybody safe today. We wanted to make sure that everyone was able to get their message out and do it safely. The event organizer put in for a permit to keep the roads closed, and that’s really the Flemington police’s standpoint. We’re just here for the public safety.”
“To be clear, this by no means is our (department’s) message, this is the community’s message,” he added.
He noted everything about the rally was “very peaceful.”
Resident Hailey Rounsaville had planned to organize a protest called “No Thin Blue Line In Flemington! Rally Against Hate” at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
“There will be a meeting to voice the overwhelming public opinion that the THIN BLUE LINE has no place in Flemington,” a Facebook event post stated. “Its very presence, and the rhetoric of the blue lives and all lives matter movement, is a direct attack on the Black Lives Matter movement and American communities of color”.
There were “credible threats” made against this counter protest which led to the event’s postponement, according to the organizer on the Facebook page. The rally has been postponed to June 27.