Two "Blue Lives Matter" billboards went up in Memphis in September — one at I-240 and I-40 and another at Getwell and I-240 — and now the boards are popping up in cities across the country.
"The last numbers that I've heard is that there were 300 boards up around the country in at least 20 states and 30 metro markets," said Trace Hallowell, the creative director for Tactical Magic, the Memphis-based branding agency behind the message.
It all started last spring when an anonymous person contacted Tactical Magic asking if they could create a pro-police message. Hallowell said they worked on the campaign pro bono and came up with two billboard messages — "Memphis Honors the Blues" and "Memphis Heroes Wear Blue." The anonymous person managed to get Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising to put the message on two billboards in Memphis.
"Over the summer, I became quite provoked by a string of incidents where law enforcement people were singled out for assassination apparently just because of their uniforms. I'm distressed over law enforcement abuses, too. But as a human rights issue, it bothered me terribly," Hallowell said. "And there are certain sectors of society that were celebrating that. I thought, we need to have a message out there to just affirm the humanity of the men and women who wear uniforms. So I called [the anonymous person] up and said, how about we extend the campaign with this topical message of 'Blue Lives Matter'?"
The person agreed, and the message went up on billboards here last month. And then, Lamar Advertising began putting the message up in other markets, including Toledo, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Hartford, Connecticut.
The billboards feature a hashtag — #thankublu — at the bottom of the board, and it's generated both positive and negative responses on Twitter. Some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have spoken out against Blue Lives Matter or All Lives Matter messaging, claiming those phrases diminish the original intention of the "Black Lives Matter" message, which came about after a string of incidents involving white officers killing unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; Cleveland, Ohio; and other cities.
One recent tweet from Stephen Matlock (@stephenmatlock) reads: "As long as police officers can get away with murdering children like #TamirRice, I'm not inclined to say #thankublu." Another from Clayton Seager (@ClaytonSeager) reads: "#thankublu is so disrespectful towards #BlackLivesMatter I'm disappointed in this country."
But some of the tweets are positive, and Hallowell says he's gotten more encouraging feedback than negative feedback.
"This isn't a competing entity [with Black Lives Matter]. It's just a message meant to contribute to the cultural conversation in a moment in time when it seemed to be called for. Some people have posted some pretty hateful things, but most of it has been touching and positive," Hallowell said. "At least 99 percent of our response so far has been really positive, so focusing on the negative might be misleading. Some people have said, 'This meant a lot to me. I went through a bad shift today. I had to arrive on a scene with a dead infant, and I was feeling terrible, and on the way back, I saw this for the first time.'"
Memphis has seen its own share of police killings lately. On August 1st, Memphis Police Officer Sean Bolton was shot eight times while conducting a traffic stop near Cottonwood and Perkins in Parkway Village.
Tremaine Wilbourn, 29, has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of Bolton, who was 33. Wilbourn was a passenger in a car that was stopped on the side of the road when Bolton pulled over to check on the car. Police believe Bolton may have interrupted a drug transaction. A struggle ensued between Bolton and Wilborn, and Bolton was shot multiple times. Police searched the vehicle Wilbourn was riding in later and found almost two grams of pot.
On October 4th, Memphis Police Officer Terence Oldridge was shot and killed in his driveway in Cordova. His neighbor Lorenzo Clark was arrested for being a felon in possession of a handgun in connection with the shooting. But Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong has said they don't yet have enough evidence to charge Clark with murder since they haven't determined who shot first. Oldridge's weapon had apparently also been fired.
Memphis has also had a recent case of a white officer killing an unarmed black teen. On July 17th, Darrius Stewart was shot and killed by Memphis Police Officer Conor Schilling after the car Stewart was a passenger in was pulled over for having a headlight out. Stewart was placed in the back of a squad car after the traffic stop while Schilling checked for warrants. The police account of what happened says that, when Schilling opened the squad car to handcuff Stewart, the man kicked the door and tried to attack the officer. Shortly after the warrant check, police reported that Stewart had been shot and an ambulance was called for. Stewart later died at the Regional Medical Center.
District Attorney Amy Weirich has received the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's report on the incident, but she has yet to make a decision as to whether or not Schilling will be charged with homicide.