ATLANTA — In 1978, longtime Plain Dealer journalist/columnist Bill Hickey and his pastor, the Rev. Nelson Callahan, wrote a book entitled, “Irish Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland.” In their book, published as part of Cleveland State University’s Ethnic Heritage Studies Series, Hickey and Callahan detail the long and intricate story of Irish immigration and settlement in the city of Cleveland. The book can be read in its entirety online for free.
Hickey and Callahan wrote that the first Irish immigrants came to Cleveland in the early and middle 1820s. This “handful of Irish men” came seeking a better way of life, with many of them gaining employment on the city’s docks. Over time, the handful grew into thousands; developing from groups squatting on Whiskey Island to settlements called Irishtown.
Immigrants in a new land, the Irish faced more than their fair share of discrimination at the hands of the “Yankees” when they began settling in Cleveland: “It must be remembered that through the latter decades of the 19th Century, the Irish of Cleveland were blamed for every major and minor ill that afflicted the city. It was estimated by police officials and trumpeted loudly in all Cleveland newspapers, especially Edwin Cowles’ anti-Irish Cleveland Leader, that 90% of all crimes committed within the city’s boundaries were perpetrations of the Irish.”
Undeterred, the Irish planted roots in Cleveland and gained employment in areas outside of the traditional dock labor. Some started businesses. Interestingly, many began getting jobs in the safety forces. Hickey and Callahan wrote, “The Irish flooded the police departments. The Irish flooded fire departments…” Hickey and Callahan went on:
“One plus factor that resulted from the on-going Irish “criminality” was that the Yankee community decided that there was something in the adage about fighting fire with fire. Irishmen were invited to be official upholders of the law — to become policemen …. In fact, within a few decades, especially around the turn of the century, it seemed to America that every policeman in every large city in this country spoke with a brogue. An almost equal number of Irishmen joined the fire-fighting brigades when they came to be formed…”
“Irish at the time were not considered white …. The Irish flooded the police departments. The Irish flooded fire departments. The Irish flooded safety forces, to the point that where we have bagpipes and kilts and all this green when we celebrate it…. Racism is in the DNA of America. So there is a certain type of person who has historically applied to be police officers, and we’re not part of that certain type of person.”
Consider Director Howard’s comments. I transcribed most of them, but if you want to see the comments in their entirety, there’s video as well. Then consider what Hickey and Callahan wrote. I ask you, what did Director Howard say that was wrong?
Claiming that the Irish weren’t perceived as white is not controversial; it is historically accurate. I can think of another group right now that is blamed for every major and minor ill that befalls Cleveland. I can think of another group that is categorized as criminals. Hickey and Callahan, all the way back in 1978, could, too. They wrote, “Secondly, the Irish were assigned the anathema role in society, the role blacks have been cast in today.”
Per Hickey and Callahan, the Irish did in fact flood the city’s safety forces. It is for this reason that their heritage colors police celebrations and memorials to this very day. Bagpipes are played because so many of them served. It is not prejudicial or anti-Irish to acknowledge this historical fact.
It is true that racism is in the DNA of America. That much is not debatable. It is well-established that many of the men who drafted this nation’s founding document owned slaves. Discrimination on the basis of race was federally prohibited just 58 years ago. In sum, racism is just as (if not more) American than apple pie or baseball.
Director Howard also made comments about people from suburbs trying to be police officers in Cleveland. “If you don’t apply to become a Cleveland police officer, someone in Brecksville or Parma or Parma Heights or Painesville is going to come and try to be a police officer in this city, and they don’t understand Cleveland.”
Again, I ask, where is the lie?
Every police department in America would prefer to be staffed with people born and raised in the community that it polices. The Brecksville Police Department would prefer to have officers from Brecksville. So would the police departments in Parma, Parma Heights, and Painesville.
It is common sense that policing is easier, and more effective, when the police have a strong relationship with the community that they police. The strength of a relationship can quite often be measured by the amount of time invested in it. Police from outside a community have no time invested in the community and therefore have no relationship with it. Those who were born in a community, raised in it, have stronger ties that bind them to the community, and the community to them.
In short, police respond/react differently to people that they know. Likewise, people respond/react differently to police that they know. The fear/disdain/aversion that some police and some citizens have for each other is in large part a byproduct of anonymity. We fear/hate/avoid things and people that we do not know.
If one is looking for a “biased” (former) public official, consider Donald J. Trump. Among many other things, he pushed the false rumor that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. He called Mexican immigrants “rapists.” He called for a ban of Muslims from coming into the United States. He tweeted antisemitic imagery. He was slow to condemn former KKK leader David Duke’s endorsement of his presidential campaign.
None of this “bias” caused the rank-and-file Cleveland police union to lack confidence in Trump. For the over 50-year history of the CPPA, they had never endorsed a presidential candidate. In 2016, they chose that guy, Donald J. Trump, to be their first endorsed presidential candidate.
Let’s review the different responses. One person speaks the truth and is accused of bias by the police union and publicly disavowed with a vote of no confidence. Another blew every racist dog whistle known to man and lied so often that a national newspaper assigned a team to fact-check him in real time. The police union endorsed him in historic fashion. Lies are put on a pedestal. The truth is publicly admonished.
If you’re wondering why Cleveland is under a consent decree, this is it. If you’re wondering why Issue 24 passed, this is it. You don’t build a relationship with a community by scolding those who tell it the truth and praising those who tell it lies. A friend to my deceiver is no friend to me; and some might say that person is my enemy.
We know the real reason the union is manufacturing outrage. Director Howard has fired quite a few police officers. The union has been calling for his exit since 2021 over it.
I understand that. The union is tasked with advocating for its members. Opposing someone who terminates its members (even those who deserve it) is business as usual.
But stick to that. Get upset and do your votes when Director Howard fires a string of officers. That’s your job. But don’t get upset and do your votes when Director Howard tells the truth about the history of policing in Cleveland. That is not your job.
Besides, you should know better. Don’t the police have a museum?
Eric Foster, a community member of the editorial board, is a columnist for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com. Foster is a lawyer in private practice. The views expressed are his own.