Among the charming figures of New York City civic life in recent decades has been Joseph O’Hare, S.J., who served as editor in chief of America from 1975 to 1984 and as president of Fordham University from 1984 to 2003. Anyone who knows Father O’Hare (now living back in his native Bronx) can attest that he is also a world-class raconteur. Among his tales is one about his father, also Joe O’Hare, and my grandfather, Michael Keane, fellow Irishmen who served together in the New York Police Department’s mounted unit.
One night during the 1930s, Troop B was summoned to break up an anarchist riot near Central Park. “Sidewalk to sidewalk, men,” their commanding officer told them, “don’t let any of them behind your horse.” Upon arriving at Columbus Circle, the officers were horrified to discover the supposed anarchists were in fact a group of fellow Irish-Americans, protesting continued British interference in Irish affairs.
The boys of the N.Y.P.D. halted. What to do? Spur their horses into a crowd of fellow countrymen? Ultimately, they half-heartedly followed orders. O’Hare’s father found himself confronted by a woman wielding a long hatpin. “Look, look, it’s the bully of King George!” she shouted while poking him with the hatpin. “It’s that tyrant who put you up on that horse!”
That the story has lasted almost a century is a testament to its emotional power, if not to its factual reliability (sometimes the desire for good craic can trump concerns over accuracy). That it has no ending says something about the tension that exists in police life between solidarity with the people one guards and solidarity with one’s fellow officers. Finally, it’s a reminder of a grim truth about human nature: it’s easier to demonize your enemies when they don’t look, talk or think like you.
Until very recently, most cops in New York City looked like me. For most of my life, my own sympathies were with the police, until the fall of 2011, when as a participant in the Occupy protests in Berkeley and Oakland, I saw police drag a woman 20 feet by her hair. I ducked and ran as police fired tear gas into crowds of college students and hipsters. I bailed a seminarian friend out of jail who was beaten by Oakland police while walking away from an Occupy protest.
That last arrest resulted in a trial in which an Oakland cop who could have been my brother lied repeatedly under oath. Astonishingly, the victim of his attack was the one found guilty—of obstructing a public street. It was then that I began to understand a little better what many poor and minority Americans face when they deal with the police—to witness the illegal and immoral use of force, then see its victim punished for enduring it. (His victim—it’s a small world—is now the poetry editor of this magazine.)
The explosions of anger by many New Yorkers over incidents like the death by choking of Eric Garner suggest that many Americans feel the same way: there is a deep resentment over police misconduct. Such incidents also remind us that our city’s vaunted drop in crime over the past decades has come at a terrible price.
The resentment many feel is not assuaged by folks like Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who suggest that protests against police misconduct led to the recent slaying of two N.Y.P.D. officers by a madman. Lynch’s logic—if you protest how we behave, if you object to our violence, then there is blood on your hands when we die—is the language of totalitarianism, and will only harden the hearts of many who see the N.Y.P.D. as the enemy. That logic also eliminates the sympathy of the vast majority of Americans who say “what kind of animal kills a cop?”
So where do we go from here?
I would suggest that the insights of officers Keane and O’Hare 80 years ago might make for a good start. We would all do well to recognize that they—those people—look, act and think just as we do. Even when their skin color, when their experiences of life, when their relationship with the police and with society is radically different from ours. Or even when they are cops. We’d all do well to hesitate before calling someone a criminal, before calling a cop a thug.
We’re going to need to think of each other as fellow humans if we’re going to make it through this, as fellow countrymen in the land of the living. Because what could be more dishonorable than trampling a fellow countryman. And they are fellow countrymen, are they not?