Remembering John W. Perry

Monday, September 11th, 2006

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Bios and obtiuaries for John Perry typcially and inaccurately describe him as a man of contradictions. He was a New York City police officer and board member of the Nassau County ACLU. He was a registered Democrat and avowed opponent of the Nanny State. He called himself a libertarian, and opposed the war on drugs. He was both a humanitarian and a rugged indvidiualist. He was an authority figure who nonetheless regularly questioned and stood up to authority. He loved his country but sought out, befriended, and embraced foreigners. He was a patrol cop who assisted in investigating and prosecuting other cops who didn’t play by the rules.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything inherently contradictory in any of that.

I’ve no doubt that Perry was flawed, as all of us are. And I suppose any 9/11 remembrance ought to be written while bearing in mind that such undertakings often tread perilously close to hagiography.

Still, it’s hard no to be impressed with what Perry accopmlished in his 38 years. According to his mother, he was diagnosed with a learning disability in the first grade, and didn’t learn to tie his shoes until the age of nine.

By the time he died, he was conversant in six languages. He had earned a J.D. from NYU Law, and was studying malpractice law. He was an amateur actor, appearing in several films and as an extra in shows like NYPD Blue and Law & Order. He was a marathon runner and a long-distance swimmer — he once tried to swim around the entire island of Manhattan.

He studied political philsophy, attended services for and dilligently studied several religions, quoted John Stuart Mill, and gave a lifelong friend a 3rd edition copy of Human Action as a wedding present. While at NYPD, he initiated a project where he collected the bulletproof vests of retiring police officers, then personally took them to Moscow to give to law enforcement there, where crime is rampant and resources are scarce. He volunteered in a shelter for abused children, and tried to reform the city’s adoption system.

Anecdotes attesting to Perry’s character abound. Here’s one:

Perry’s generosity was boundless. His two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex near Lincoln Center was known as a free bed and breakfast. Vladimir Azbel, a longtime friend, said he once called Perry because he had $1,700 in parking tickets. “He said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry. Just don’t get anymore tickets,'” Azbel said. “Later on I found out that he just paid them.”

Here’s another:

NYCLU Board Member Doris Shaffer, who often drove him back to his city apartment after board meetings, remembers that once she told him about her young grandson who balked at reciting the pledge of allegiance. John suggested that Alan might mumble something unintelligible under his breath that would allow him to keep his principles without offending others. A perfect solution.

Perry was at a police station near ground zero filling his retirement papers when he first heard news that a plane had hit one of the Trade Center towers. He immediately asked for his badge back, ran into an old captain on his way to the towers, and the two of them began assisting in evaucating the building. One report I read indicated he was the only off-duty officer killed on September 11. Perry was apparently assisting a woman who had fainted when the south tower collapsed. That’s the last time he was seen alive.

There’s a scholarship set up in Perry’s name that seems particularly appropriate. The money goes to promising students affected by the insidious provision added to the 1998 Higher Education Act by drug war champion Rep. Mark Souder. Souder’s amendment forbids federal aid to any student convicted of a drug offense. It’s a policy that seems to fly in the face everything Perry stood for — it inhibits the pursuit of knowledge and education, it’s an unforgiving and draconian punishment for victimless crimes, and it’s aimed squarely at kids who are attempting to move on from past mistakes. It’s also a private, civil society solution to a stupid government policy.

The personal website Perry maintained at the time of his death is still active. In addition to the links above, as well as about a dozen obituaries from newspapers around the country, I’d also suggest this touching tribute, written by one of Perry’s close friends.

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