So far, Mayor Giuliani's civility initiative, announced last January, has one win, one loss. His crackdown on automobile anarchy, especially the damn-the-torpedoes speeding of the city's medallion cabbies, has succeeded unequivocally, as the 36 percent decrease in traffic fatalities between January and June attests. The quickest way to burnish Gotham's quality of life is to enforce the laws against the uncivil behavior that also happens to be illegal. But the mayor's attempt in June to disperse the food vendors who ply their trade on midtown's sidewalks misfired so badly that City Hall scrapped its effort to unclog the pavement. Public opinion understandably saw the measure as unwarranted harshness against unoffending, largely immigrant, micro-entrepreneurs, who fill a necessary economic niche and respectably do the hard work that leads to the American dream. After that failure, the push for civility now seems temporarily stalled.
Here's how to restart it. On Labor Day, one NYPD cop and two city firemen donned blackface in Broad Channel, Queens, to ride on a parade float that demeaned blacks; indeed, one man riding on the float—not a city employee—let himself be pulled behind the float in a shameful satire of the murder of James Byrd Jr. by racist whites who dragged him behind their speeding pickup in Jasper, Texas, in June. When the Queens incident became widely known, the mayor rightly, and immediately, called for the firing of the city employees. Predictably, the New York Civil Liberties Union has leaped to their defense, so the eventual outcome is still up in the air.
The mayor should go a step further, directly linking his response to this deplorable incident to his civility campaign. People who work for the city, he should say—especially those who wear its uniform and so are in the most literal way its representatives—should be held to an especially high standard of behavior. They are to set an example for other citizens of the kind of civility the mayor urges upon all New Yorkers, since the city can't ask citizens for virtues that its own employees don't personify. By publicly shaming these three malefactors, the mayor will make it clear that the civility campaign is not directed merely against powerless, humble people but is aimed at all New Yorkers in an effort to improve the city's quality of life for everyone. He should have taken this uncompromising line with the 50 to 100 firemen who in June, wearing their uniforms and under the very eye of their commanding officer, got tipsy at the Bryant Park Grill after attending a fire department medal awards ceremony at City Hall, and set off a massive and bloody brawl after scaring patrons away with lewd behavior. Though a dozen firemen have been lightly disciplined, none was fired.
It wouldn't be surprising if the mayor felt some reluctance to chastise members of the city's uniformed services in this way. After all, the firemen and especially the cops regularly come in for such unwarranted and irresponsible abuse from self-styled minority leaders and from a broad swath of the press that it is unappealing to seem to join in, and therefore apparently to countenance, the chorus of criticism. But because dedicated and honorable individuals overwhelmingly man the NYPD and the fire department, the mayor shouldn't hesitate figuratively to rip the epaulettes off those who have disgraced the high standards of their services. It really is a way of honoring those standards—and of showing that all New Yorkers must meet a single standard of civility.