Catching up with the locals—Oceans of Blue

I picked-up the weeklies with some amount of anticipation last week. Returning from a holiday and almost a week since the funeral for murdered police officer Rafael Ramos was held in Glendale, I was eager to read local coverage of one of the most pressing issues of our time.

The South Queens version of the Queens Courier, published as the Courier-Sun, did not disappoint, with a cover image of Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder posing with three blue-ribbon-hanging community members for a page three story about their campaign in support of the NYPD.

Also on page three was Salvatore Licata's story about the funeral for PO Ramos. Licata describes Vice President Biden's eulogy as "stirring" and he provides a memorable quotation from the speech:

“It is only when a tragedy like this occurs when all of their friends, neighbors and people who didn’t even know them become aware of and reminded of the sacrifices they make every single, solitary day to make our lives better,” Biden said. “Police officers are a different breed. Thank God for them, thank God for them.”

In his article, Licata mentions the controversial decision of some members of the NYPD to turn their backs to the projected image of de Blasio as he spoke inside, a politically-charged gesture designed for media consumption. One of the questions I had as I picked up these papers at the Scuturro's supermarket and the laundrymat across Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven was "How would the weekly papers handle the defiance of the officers?"

In Licata's version, the recent history of the crisis, the conflict that has emerged over policing, is recounted in one sentence.

As one might expect of a local newspaper in this section of Queens, more attention is paid in this article to the fact that "Since the shootings, supporters of the police have emerged en masse," with four more sentences about the "sea of blue ribbons" and two sentences more from Rep. Grace Meng's statement, who who refers to the "tens of thousands" of officers who came to honor Rafael Ramos, and states that "This giant sea of blue in our community will never be forgotten nor will Officer Ramos and his family. They will remain in our hearts and prayers forever."

Licata in the Courier draws upon Meng's statement as part of the article, while The Forum newspaper in Howard Beach ran Rep. Meng's statement as a letter to the editor.

The Forum also ran on its cover an image of the Glendale funeral for Ramos: the packed throng of officers lining Myrtle Avenue near the Sunoco station with the words "Finest Farewell" and below that "Thousands Mourn Hero Cop at Funeral in Glendale."

(In this historic photograph the cost of a gallon of gasoline is memorialized at $2.71, just under $3 for the first time in recent memory. This seems amazing until you realize that in nearby states it hovers near 2.)

On page three of The Forum is an article about Goldfeder's blue-ribbon work with the Lindenwold-Howard Beach Civic Association. Michael Cusenza's article is illustrated by a picture from the same photo opportunity captured in the Courier-Sun front page image. (The Chronicle covered this as well.)

Funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos, Glendale, Queens. December 27, 2014. Photo by Robert Stridiron.

In center-spread of the newspaper, spanning pages 12 and 13, is a photomontage of a dozen images by Robert Stridiron surrounding a brief article by Micheal Cusenza about the funeral.

After noting that "City cops turned their backs on de Blasio for the duration of his remarks," Cusenza quotes the mayor in the kicker:

“His life was tragically cut short,” de Blasio said of Ramos, “but his memory will live on in the hearts of his family, his congregation, his brothers and sisters of the NYPD, and literally millions of New Yorkers. We will not forget."

The pull-out photo spread in The Forum also serves as a keepsake, suitable for framing. I'm sure more than a few will be saved in the attics and basements of southern Queens, a reminder of a historic day few of us are likely to forget.

In related stories carried in The Forum was coverage of the threats made against the NYPD by a man in a bank in Glendale. Elvin Payamps, who after being heard uttering threatening comments was subsequently followed, stopped and checked-out by police. He turned out to a credible bad-guy. His violent boastful phone-jockeying was backed by a modest collection of weapons, bulletproof vests and so forth, all found at his residence. This story was widely covered by New York City media; news of it entered a broader media ecosystem.

Further on the topic of policing, pro & con, The Forum also ran a letter by a Flushing man which asserts that the mostly non-violent protest movement that has swept the United States and New York after the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, is an unconstitutional one and he holds Mayor de Blasio and others responsible for not enforcing the law "against criminal offenders."

Image courtesy of the NYPD.

The Queens Tribune also covered the threats made in Glendale, running a page three story by Luis Gronda with the headline: "DA: Glendale Man Plotted To Kill Cops," a solid story but nowhere stating anything about a charged threat. Instead it reports the weapons and the allegations of threats made.

After looking at what's been released about this story, it seems to me that Payamps seems hardly capable of a threat, much less a plot. That said, there are some things that you shouldn't say even if you think and if you do say you probably don't think.

There has to be an easier way to get people to reveal that they shouldn't have weapons.

The Tribune's page four story "Mayor's Fund Raises $120,000 For Slain Officers" by Joe Marvilli reports on the efforts of Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York "to support impacted families and law enforcement after the two deaths. The pledges came through the general NYPD community and the Fallen Heroes Relief Effort."

Describing efforts made and some of the major contributions, the article ends with some practical information: "If you would like to contribute to the Fallen Heroes Relief Effort, visit www.nyc.gov/html/fund/html/projects/nyc-honors-our-fallen-heroes.shtml."

On page 25 of the Queens Tribune are three pictures by Walter Karling from the funeral of Rafael Ramos with the headline "Hundreds gather For Fallen NYPD Officer's Funeral" and a modest one paragraph story.

The previous week, the Tribune ran an editorial "Call for Peace" which is worth considering in full:

The tragic shooting of two NYPD patrolmen in Brooklyn on Saturday was a chilling reminder that tensions in New York City remain high at a time when race relations between the police and the City’s African American community remain frayed.

As thousands of New Yorkers – and millions of others across the country – staged peaceful protests of the decision to not indict a police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, we hope this violent assault is an aberration and not a frightening indication of things to come.

The shootings on Saturday were carried out by an individual who traveled to Brooklyn after reportedly attacking his former girlfriend in Baltimore and making threats against police officers on social media in response to the Garner decision, along with the similar decision in Ferguson, Mo.

Our elected officials have repeatedly called for peaceful discourse when it comes to protesting these decisions, and to the credit to City leaders and the NYPD, these peaceful protests have not been shut down and citizens have been able to show their dissatisfaction with the NYPD and the grand jury decisions. After Saturday’s shooting, however, it may be time to admit that a more inclusive strategy is necessary to bring about a measure of change so these incidents – both the death of Eric Garner and the shooting of police officers – do not become commonplace.

—Queens Tribune, December 24, 2014

The Queens Chronicle and the Leader/Observer ran "top story" reviews for 2014 on their covers, though both contained significant coverage on the crisis of officer involved shootings.

On page two of the Chronicle, Anthony O'Reilly tells of the cooperation of sixteen area businesses in supporting a luncheon for the Ramos family after the funeral at the Old Mill Yacht Club in Howard Beach.

"The affair was private," O'Reilly writes. "It was not broadcast to the country like the funeral earlier that morning and the Queens Chronicle was the only media invited." O'Reilly didn't betray the privacy of the event, and his entire characterization of the event occurs in the first three paragraphs and includes an odd detail that is not explained:

Photo by Anthony O'Reilly, courtesy of the Queens Chronicle.

"Maritza Ramos, Ramos’ widow, handed a U.S. flag that had been ceremoniously folded and handed to her earlier that morning to John Giangrasso, a financial secretary with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, and greeted the yacht club’s commodore, Jeffrey Duldulao, before walking in."

On page 16, there is an extended story by Chronicle editor Michael Gannon, accompanied by several images showing the "sea of blue" at the funeral, the gestures of solidarity of officers sharing in grief, and the flag-raising blue-ribbon support of the residents of 64th Place in Glendale.

Gannon's story recounts the basics and includes generous portions of speeches by Vice President Biden, Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton. More interesting is Gannon's attention to those who came to show their support for the NYPD and the article includes insight into the stresses families feel upon sending their sons and daughters into such service.

Gregory Boyle is a retired NYPD detective from the 66th Precinct in Brooklyn. His son now has taken up the family business.

Boyle said every member of a cop’s family starts at least a little when the home telephone rings just a little later at night than it should, or just a little too early in the morning.

“My wife lived with that with me and now she does it with our son,” he said.

Boyle too cited the bonds that not even the most pro-police civilian in the city can quite understand to explain what drew him to stand on a Myrtle Avenue street corner for more than three hours to listen to the service outside on speakers.

“It’s the uniform that was the target,” he said grimly.

On two occasions Gannon seems to be greeted with only a single word to describe the feelings and/or motivation of those who were there to bear witness: "Brotherhood."

The Chronicle also covered the Glendale threat with its prejudicial photographic evidence (courtesy of the NYPD), as well as the viral  "Thank-you" note from the 106th precinct and the prayer vigil at the 109th in Flushing.

The letters to the editor in the Queens Chronicle gets our inaugural "%&@#*! Award," which will be awarded to the "letters" section of a local newspaper most like an anonymous blog in terms of courage of opinion, strength of argument, or diversity of outlook.

Next to a heartfelt thanks to the residents of Glendale and Ridgewood from Assemblyman Mike Miller is a letter titled "Against brutality, not cops" from two participants in the recent protests who took issue with some of the characterizations made in the December 25th Queens Chronicle editorial:

Your editorial rejects history; and we cannot forego history — when voices of authority do this, whether deliberately or simply by failing to know — it clouds the message. It does not help to deflect tensions but adds to the misunderstandings in our communities. Policing is a very difficult job, and the conditions under which police have to work are amplified by the neighborhoods that have the most crime — poor neighborhoods — where the unemployment rate is twice that of white middle-class neighborhoods, especially among youth.

What you should be addressing are the root causes that have brought us to “anger toward the police that even veteran observers say they have not seen in a long time, if ever” and yes, that climate must change. We must have a police department that understands and respects the community.

Another letter, from a woman in Bayside, calls out Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrich Lynch. The letter is reprinted probably because it is a little over the top, with its word-play on the PBA leader's name and a means of execution largely associated with the history of American racism.

That said, it's interesting that the Chronicle by far carried the most interesting commentary from readers on this topic, and with their inclusion of the Mike Miller letter and two articles from "the other side," the Chronicle should be commended for outpacing the other weeklies that I saw this week.

In the Leader/Observer, Chase Collum's page three story about the wake for Officer Ramos, featured one of the only images of members of the general public. The online edition of the Leader/Observer featured three images, two of which showed the public behind barricades, waiting to pay their respects.

On page ten of the Leader/Observer is Chase Collum's article on the Saturday funeral for Officer Ramos. The article contains some of the basics of the event, with other significant details, some not included elsewhere. Interestingly, online the article has the title Fidelis Ad Mortem: Faithful Unto Death but in the print edition reads simply: "Thousands gather to pay respects to slain officer."

The article is mostly straightforward and contains more information about community efforts to support the Ramos and Liu familes, with more quotation from Bratton and Biden's eulogies. Collum notes that during de Blasio's speech "hundreds of cops who stood along Myrtle Avenue turned their backs to the giant screen."

But, as Collum notes, "De Blasio spoke on and remembered Ramos as a man of faith."

Okay. I don't have any complaint with reporting that plays up the drama inherent in the scene. But if you're paying attention, you'll note other oddities in the Collum article, hurried, perhaps under the crush of deadlines, the holiday season, and the general fog of rapidly unfolding events.

But the purpose of "Catching Up With the Locals" is not to criticize the reporters on the Queens scene, but rather to read them carefully as anyone might hope to be read. By paying attention to the work local writers do, I'm hoping to discover editorial trends and tendencies, especially those not seen upon casual reading. In fact, my goal, you might say, is to force myself into deeper readings, making connections and associations that only come from active reading like this.

If I had any expectations about what would be covered in the weeklies, they were dispelled by the Leader/Observer, which ran an editorial criticizing those officers who turned their backs on the mayor. Noting the strength of the department is that it faces challenges head on, the editorial criticized them for making a political gesture in the context of a fallen officer's funeral.

The Leader/Observer also published one of the more virulent letters criticizing the mayor this week. If the woman in Bayside provided rhetorically flawed criticisms of the PBA president Pat Lynch, the one by the man in Middle Village similarly unreasonably criticized Mayor de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for having inspired the shooting of two officers through their "words and acts of support" for those who have sought policy changes within the NYPD or more broadly.

Disregarding the truth value in the claim that something the speaker or mayor did or said caused he murders of officers Liu and Ramos to happen—and presumably letters to the editor are not held to the same standard as basic reporting or editorializing—it is interesting to note that it is in fact the "words and visions" of elected leaders that are in question by those critical of the mayor. No evidence is provided to support this argument, which has been in the air since Patrick Lynch stated as much shortly after the shooting.

Presumably much of the complaint hangs on what the mayor meant when he told his son Dante to "take special care" when engaging with the police, part of a statement that has been understood as evidence of his anti-police bias.

It becomes all-too easy to imagine what would be expected to make the most vocal commenters happy; how spirited and unrestrained a crackdown on the protests would have to be to get the support of the most ardent defenders of law and order.

That said, I found the newspapers to be mostly highly orthodox in their coverage when it was not possible to be visibly pious as in some. I did find a great deal of editorial restraint—I did not see one picture of a protesting police officer, nor any anti-de Blasio placards, which were prominently displayed nationally via CNN and others.

Next week, we'll follow-up with more media coverage of these issues, but also try to move along. There is much to say about unrelated happenings in the Queens weeklies and some is now dated. Thus, "catching up," is literally that, a consideration and verbal processing of what's otherwise "old news"—and I guess you might say that even old news deserves to be covered, too.

Happy New Year!

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