During the 1980s, my brother Teddy was a volunteer firefighter with our local firehouse. I remember more than a few late nights when an alarm would go off and Teddy would jump into his 1976 Monte Carlo and rush to the firehouse or, more frequently, just run the block and a half up the street.
He did this for the same reasons that everyone who volunteers at a local fire company does: He cared about the people in our small suburban community.
I don’t know Bruce McClay Jr., a former member of another volunteer fire company in Bon Air, Pa., but he’s probably like my brother in that desire to be of service. And even though I’ve lived in nearby Haverford Township for going on 50 years, I likely would never have heard of him had it not been for the township commissioners, who made this 20-something young man the scandal du jour.
Over a year ago, McClay attended a few meetings of the Proud Boys, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League has categorized as a hate group. Given the fact that the SPLC has also labeled some pro-life organizations as hate groups, their assessment of hate and bigotry holds little weight with me. But that’s actually beside the point, because McClay never did join the Proud Boys.
But when McClay’s extracurricular activities became public, the township called for his resignation, which he provided. Bon Air initially refused to accept the resignation, citing McClay’s years of service. Oh yeah, there was also the fact, as Bon Air noted, that he’d never been convicted of any crime, let alone a hate crime.
The commissioners didn’t like Bon Air’s decision, since they’re all about tolerance and diversity. (Even though the board is composed of nine white men - not that there’s anything wrong with that.) So they closed down the firehouse and took possession of the equipment.
Naturally, the community was outraged - on both sides. Some people supported the township in its punishment of Bon Air, arguing that in a place dotted with “Hate Has No Home Here” signs, they didn’t want a person who had trafficked with the Proud Boys serving the community. Others, like yours truly, were upset at the fact that a governmental entity was punishing a person who ultimately did nothing wrong.
Last week, the commissioners held their regularly-scheduled monthly meeting. First on the agenda was a statement from Board President Andy Lewis, announcing that Bon Air would be reopened because, lo and behold, it had decided to accept McClay’s resignation after all.
And then, the people had their say. The first community member to speak applauded the commissioners for their actions in providing a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all Havertownians. The next gentleman, a self-professed liberal, railed at the board for engaging in thought policing. The third gentleman talked about the damage that had been done to McClay, who he said has been stalked, harassed, and doxxed in the town he worked to protect and serve. (Full disclosure: I also spoke in defense of McClay at this meeting.)
The issue here is not about volunteer firefighters, or even about Haverford at all. The issue is that McClay was punished not because of his actions, but because some people think they can predict his actions. Perhaps everyone who supports McClay’s resignation has led stellar, virtuous lives. Perhaps they’ve never had a problematic thought or regretted attending a meeting.
They say that actions speak louder than words. What about actions that never actually happened?
Holding people accountable for what you think they might do would make George Orwell take notice.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.