The sense of dread when passing the South District Police Station is palpable.
The source of that apprehension? The "blue lives matter" flag flying over the premises on South Park Avenue.
That symbol outside a public building – particularly a police station – sends an unsettling message that should make anyone think twice about what might happen if they or a loved one comes in contact with police.
The flag is particularly disturbing in a place like Buffalo, "where we’ve had citizens lose their lives with no threat to police officers," said Katrinna Martin Bordeaux, chairwoman of the Buffalo Black Lives Matter chapter.
The recent examples of that are well known. Rafael "Pito" Rivera – who cops said was holding a gun, though that is not clear from video shown to reporters – was fatally shot by police while running away from them last September. Wardel "Meech" Davis was unarmed when he struggled with police and wound up dead in February 2017, apparently from an asthma attack. And Jose Hernandez-Rossy, 26, also was unarmed when he was shot and killed in May 2017 after a traffic stop went awry and an airbag went off, apparently leading police to think he had fired at them.
Against that backdrop, and the ongoing tensions here and elsewhere about police tactics, that flag is an affront.
A Police Department spokesman said it has been up for some time and is to honor fallen officers around the country and raise money for their families – which sounds nice.
But given that the "blue lives matter" movement gained popularity as a direct response to Black Lives Matter and the killing of unarmed black men, that doesn’t fly.
In fact, if officers are so out of touch that they can’t recognize the context in which their flag would be viewed, it raises even more questions about their ability to police a diverse community.
"We need to start having that conversation about why any of this is necessary," said Bordeaux, who called the flag "extremely disappointing."
Critics still pretend not to understand the implicit "too" that follows the plea by blacks for equal consideration when they assert that Black Lives Matter.
There’s never been any question that police lives matter; police always have had the luxury of assuming that their value is widely recognized. Blacks, regardless of economic station, still have to fight for that recognition every day.
Yet one can just imagine the reaction if African-Americans had desecrated the American flag to make that point.
"Black Lives Matter doesn’t have an American flag with a black stripe," noted the Rev. Mark Blue, president of the Buffalo NAACP, contrasting the acceptance of the blue lives flag with the reaction to the protests led by blackballed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. "Kneeling wasn’t a desecration of the flag."
But perhaps the best summation of what’s wrong with this flag comes from attorney Erin Bahn, who alerted me to its presence.
"This is a symbol that supports the choices that police officers make... when they slam someone’s head on a cop car door as they put the person in the back with handcuffs... when they choose to shoot a man in the back as he runs away... when they choke someone who is in custody until they stop breathing," Bahn wrote in an email, after realizing she couldn’t just drive past this flag.
She also realized it’s an issue for the entire city, one that defines what kind of place we want this to be.
"I felt intimidated as a white female," Bahn wrote. "All of Buffalo should feel the intimidation which is intended in this symbol and then righteously rage against it."
But it shouldn’t even have to come to that.
Mayor Byron W. Brown and Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood should order that flag taken down – now – and then figure out how to retrain the officers who put it up in the first place.