A billboard on Brainerd Road that proclaims "Blue Lives Matter" and features the badges of the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spurred debate among locals Thursday.
Some say the message, featured on a digital billboard at 5751 Brainerd Road, is an affront to the Black Lives Matter movement that has spread nationwide in the wake of high-profile, unprosecuted police shootings of black men. But others say the message is only positive — a way to say thanks to local law enforcement.
Charlie Hunt at Lookout Advertising said his company created the advertisement in-house and put it up on their digital billboard about three months ago as a way to honor police and counter negative publicity he's seen surrounding law enforcement. It rotates through a number of other digital billboard postings every few minutes.
"We did not want to divide anybody or anything, especially with this Black Lives Matter," he said. "All lives matter, and there is nothing racial about that."
"All lives matter, but we're the ones getting killed," countered Norman Williams, who is also known as Friday Mac. He's organized a handful of efforts in Chattanooga to call gang members to stop the violence and said the sign felt like a personal attack from law enforcement.
"It's disrespectful," he said.
Williams started receiving calls and notes on social media about the billboard on Wednesday, he said. On Facebook, a photo of the billboard has been shared about 80 times and with commenters expressing anger about the message.
"They wanted to tear it down, to burn it down, but I was like, we don't need to take that approach," Williams said. "There are other ways."
While many of the social media commenters believed the message was sponsored by local law enforcement, the police department and sheriff's office did not know about the billboard before it was posted — and they did not pay for it, spokesmen for the departments said.
But Sheriff Jim Hammond said the billboard presents a positive message.
"I feel it's great that so many people across this country, including our own county, want to recognize our local law enforcement community and all first responders who put their lives on the line for our citizens every day," he said in a statement.
Police Chief Fred Fletcher said in a statement that the police department supports everyone's right to free speech.
Scholars who have studied both the Black Lives Matter movement and law enforcement say that the "Blue Lives Matter" billboard takes the Black Lives Matter message out of context and distracts from the issue the activists are attempting to address.
"It is diverting attention away from the problem of policing of the black community," said Robert Durán, a professor of criminology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "It's minimizing to trade one experience with the other when they are totally different."
In 2015, about 1,134 people were killed by police in the United States, according to a study by The Guardian, which tracked every killing. In that same period, 52 police officers were killed because of a criminal act. Another 72 died from non-criminal circumstances like drowning or electrocution, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Lois Presser, associate head of the sociology department at UT, said that because the billboard uses the same language as the Black Lives Matter movement, it is clearly addressing that movement and offering a counterpoint — whether or not that was the creator's intent.
But the message, she said, takes the entire Black Lives Matters movement out of context.
"[Black Lives Matters activists] are making a historical statement, savvy to the history of police and minorities in the United States," she said. "To say 'all lives matter' or 'blue lives matter' is to take the whole thing out of context."
Concerned Citizens For Justice, the organization that heads up Chattanooga's Black Lives Matter events, said Thursday they planned to release a statement about the billboard, but did not.
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This story was updated on Jan. 22 to correct the number of people killed by law enforcement in 2015.