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Over the last two decades, the Punisher, the famously violent comic book character, has grown into a symbol used by police officers and the Blue Lives Matter movement.
Critics, including the character’s creator, have said that the use of the symbol is disturbing, but police officers and military personnel have embraced the symbol because the character effectively dispatches “wrongdoers.”
The QAnon movement has also adopted the symbol. With its focus on the alleged misdeeds of depraved figures of power, QAnon members use the symbol to imply coming retribution.
Who is the Punisher?
The Punisher is a comic book character in the Marvel Universe, which is also home to popular characters such as Spider-Man, Captain America, Captain Marvel and the X-Men. The Punisher, whose alter ego is named Frank Castle, has appeared in comics, movies and a Netflix TV series.
A creation of writer Gerry Conway, the Punisher first appeared in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #129 in February 1974. He is usually depicted in an all-black uniform with a white skull on his chest. Like any character who has been around for decades and appeared in multiple mediums, the Punisher has a complicated backstory.
Frank Castle was an ex-Marine whose family was killed by members of organized crime. Taking on the mantle of the Punisher, Castle enacts violent vengeance against criminals and his enemies, often resorting to murder, torture and kidnapping. Unlike many other characters in the Marvel Universe, the Punisher does not have superpowers.
The Punisher is described as a vigilante for working outside the law. His willingness to murder puts him at odds with the superheroes he frequently interacts with, like Spider-Man and the Daredevil. A non-canonical one-off comic in 1995, entitled “The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe,” showed the Punisher violently dispatching all of Marvel Comics’ popular characters, including himself in the final panel.
What is Blue Lives Matters?
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an activist movement that began in 2013 to protest police brutality and the unfair treatment of people of color in their communities. It began online as a reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of murder charges. The organization says it is “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.”
Because its focus is on police misconduct, BLM has been labeled “anti-police” by some observers. In 2014, Blue Lives Matter, also sometimes shortened to BLM (for the purpose of clarity, shortened here to BlueLM), was founded by active and former law enforcement officers.
Their goal was to offer support to police officers and counter what they saw as an anti-police narrative created by Black Lives Matter. BlueLM seeks to draw attention to the risks law enforcement officers face, including violence directed at officers in the line of duty.
The two movements have come into conflict, particularly after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 14, 2014. Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, a white man, in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson was acquitted of any wrongdoing, a result that sparked mass protests in Ferguson and around the country, particularly in communities of color.
Police adopt the Punisher logo
In the comic book universe, the police are generally shown as being opposed to the Punisher, whose illegal, violent tactics supersede the justice system. In the real world, the Punisher’s iconic white skull symbol has been adopted by many police officers, as well as by the BlueLM movement in general.
The symbol was first adopted by members of the American military fighting in the Middle East who would paint the skull on their vehicles. Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL whose story was told in the Clint Eastwood-directed film, “American Sniper,” said his unit used the symbol. They were drawn to it because “[The Punisher] righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him.”
Upon returning from war, many military personnel entered law enforcement back in the US, bringing along their appreciation of the character.
The symbol has since been merged with the black-and-white American flag used by the BlueLM movement. That flag, with one blue line to represent law enforcement, was laid over the Punisher skull.
After police officers in St. Louis, Missouri, were placed under investigation for using the BlueLM skull, the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association controversially encouraged their union members to post the symbol on their social media.
The use of the Punisher symbol for BlueLM has received criticism from many circles, including from the creator of the character. Conway called it “disturbing” to see authority figures adopt the symbol, equating it to putting the Confederate flag up on government buildings.
“The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice system,” Conway explained.
The character himself has criticized the practice. In issue 13 of “The Punisher,” published in July 2019, the vigilante is confronted by police officers who tell him they use his symbol. The Punisher responds in dismay, “We’re not the same. You took an oath to uphold the law, you help people. I gave all that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do. Nobody does.”
Nonetheless, the symbol remains popular with BlueLM. As recently as April 14, conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity wore a BlueLM skull pendant on his evening show, “Hannity.” Hannity has previously lambasted the Black Lives Movement, comparing it to the Ku Klux Klan.
QAnon and punishment
After Hannity wore the BlueLM pendant on his show, members of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement celebrated it as an indication of impending punishment for enemies of President Donald Trump. That was apparently referring to a Q post from May 14, 2018, in which an image of the Punisher skull was accompanied solely by the words “Pain coming.”
The anonymous poster known only as Q, whose October 2017 post on 4chan launched QAnon, frequently includes the Punisher skull in their posts (known as Q posts).
The movement believes there is a “deep state” cabal of powerful politicians, businesspeople and celebrities who operate a sex trafficking ring involving children. Q and the movement’s followers believe United States President Trump is working to unearth this group and bring the perpetrators to justice. Q posts often reference “punishing” those opposed to the president.
Despite the Punisher link between Blue Lives Matter and QAnon, though, there is little to suggest members of QAnon have specific ties to law enforcement.
In recent months, multiple people affiliated with QAnon have been arrested for activities related to the movement.