The thin blue line

Local voices: Retired police officer John Walsh was among those who attended the Back the Blue rally in Mayfair on July 13. About 500 people gathered for the demonstration. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Whenever the lingering, unresolved public discourse over the police’s use of force and their complex relationship with people of color piques national interest, residents of Northeast Philadelphia can usually be counted upon to take a vocal stand in the pro-police camp.

On July 13, about 500 folks gathered at Frankford and Cottman avenues in Mayfair for the Back the Blue rally, a demonstration organized two days earlier via Facebook by a local woman with deep roots in the Philadelphia Police Department. Donna DiDonato described herself as a retired cop, the daughter of a cop and the sister and cousin of cops.

It was the third such demonstration held in the Northeast since 2009. In March of that year, about 4,000 people took part in a march from the Flyers SkateZone to the 8th Police District in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Officer John Pawlowski, who was the city’s eighth murdered officer in less than three years. In December 2014, close to 500 people showed up for a pro-police rally at Frankford and Cottman. At the time, police critics were holding demonstrations in cities across the country to protest the fatal shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

DiDonato said she created last week’s event “after seeing the Dallas (police shootings) on the news and seeing what police were going through there. There was a (Black Lives Matter) protest in Philadelphia at the 24th and 25th Police Districts and it got to my heart. It was time to get the people of Philadelphia together to show our support for police.”

The Black Lives Matter event mentioned by DiDonato occurred on July 9 when demonstrators marched to the 24th and 25th Police District station in Juniata to protest the recent police killings of men in Louisiana and Minnesota.

Despite rain showers leading up to the July 13 pro-police rally, demonstrators began gathering in the triangle park in front of Republic Bank well in advance of the scheduled 6:30 p.m. start time. Uniformed police had positioned wooden barriers to cordon off the 3500 block of Ryan Ave., a street often closed for neighborhood events such as flea markets and vendor fairs.

About 100 demonstrators were on-site by 6:30, when a police helicopter executed a low-level flyby to signal unofficially the start of the program. Many people wore blue T-shirts and those memorializing fallen Philadelphia officers like Daniel Faulkner, Stephen Liczbinski, Robert Wilson and Brian Lorenzo, all of whom lost their lives in the line of duty. Other participants wore Jesse Hartnett T-shirts in honor of the officer who was ambushed inside his patrol car last January and shot three times, only to return gunfire and kill his attacker.

Many people waved American flags, including the traditional red, white and blue variety, as well as those colored black and white with a single blue horizontal stripe down the middle, symbolizing the metaphorical “thin blue line.” The phrase represents the concept that law and order are tenuous and ensured mainly by the relatively few police officers.

Other demonstrators waved signs with slogans such as “Back Your Blue,” “Blue Lives Matter” and “I support police.”

When asked why he decided to participate, Rich Hayes said he only wanted to keep the memory of his brother, Officer Robert Hayes, alive. Hayes died on June 16, 1993, after he and his partner, John Marynowitz, stopped a rogue cab in West Oak Lane. When the officers discovered suspected drugs in the car, the motorist grabbed Marynowitz’ gun and shot both cops. Marynowitz was permanently disabled.

Many in the crowd were off-duty police, retired police or relatives of police. The throng was predominantly white, but many other races were represented, as were people from different walks of life. Many parents brought young children. Several motorcycle clubs wore their “colors” proudly.

“As a child, I was taught to respect the police,” said Patricia McDonough, whose husband is an officer in the 15th district.

McDonough is sharing that ethic with her daughter Paige, 6, whose T-shirt read, “Daddy’s got my 6.” In cop and military lingo, your “6” is your back, something that always needs to be covered.

“I wish we could get at least a quarter of what the protestors get. That would be excellent,” McDonough said.

At least a half-dozen broadcast news outlets covered the event. City Councilman Bobby Henon was there, as was an aide to U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, among other non-elected political figures.

“I’m not here to make a political statement. I’m here to support the police,” Henon said. “And I’m glad the people came here to support the best-trained police force in the country.”

Not all attendees were convinced of the value of the event. Nakeesha Armstrong said she heard about the gathering and wanted to see what it was about. But she was disturbed about the focus on police and not people as a whole.

“I don’t totally agree with it. All lives matter,” Armstrong said. “As long as they’re standing on one side of the fence and we’re standing on the other side, nothing is going to get resolved. We have to come together. They’re not going about it the right way.”

While many in the crowd were critical of the roles of social media and the news media in publicizing cases of police violence and inciting the public to pass judgment before all facts have been gathered, Armstrong thinks that the power of technology is a good thing.

“When cops handcuff people and beat up people, you can’t ignore it,” she said. “I don’t want people to ignore it. We really have to tackle situations head on. Enough is enough. It could be my nephew. It could be anybody’s kid. It’s not just black people or white people. It’s all people.”

Retired officers Bob Kane and Kevin McNamara think that sensationalism and anti-police rhetoric have eroded public support of cops, so they are happy to see police supporters get some coverage.

“People should know police are out here for everybody,” said Kane, who worked 35 years in the PPD, largely with Northeast Detectives. “In Dallas, when all of that went down, police officers ran into the fire, not away from it. I’m very sympathetic to my brothers in blue all across the country. When one of us dies, we all feel it in our hearts.

“(But) not all the public appreciates the police like they used to. The public wants the police until the police get there and actually have to do the job.”

McNamara, a 17-year veteran who worked mostly in the 15th district, said, “Violence is not pretty and the TV keeps playing it and playing it. But sometimes (police) have got to fight. And (the media) can cut and paste it any way they want it to look. The job is getting harder because of technology and many people just don’t like cops.”

Perhaps nothing reinforced those points more than what happened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Sunday morning, when a former U.S. Marine and self-proclaimed Nation of Islam member shot three police officers to death and wounded three others in what authorities have described as an ambush.

Police supporters have announced a second local rally scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 7, from 4 to 8 p.m. at Frankford and Cottman avenues. Billed as the Philly Cops Rock Rally, it will feature a music DJ. Local police say that organizers have been issued a city permit for the event. ••

Nakeesha Armstrong attended the Back the Blue rally in Mayfair on July 13. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Showing their support: Demonstrators gathered at Frankford and Cottman avenues last week for the Back the Blue rally. People waved flags colored black and white with a single blue stripe down the middle, symbolizing the metaphorical “thin blue line.” The phrase represents the idea that law and order are ensured mainly by few police officers. MARIA YOUNG
/ TIMES PHOTO