A Fire Department spokesman, trying to make a point about how seriously the agency took the mocking of George Floyd's death by nine white firefighters it suspended, after detailing the time lost that would cost them a combined 318 days in lost pay and require one of them to resign, noted, "These are some of the harshest penalties the Department has ever adjudicated."
There's truth to that. But it's also true that 23 years ago, two other white firefighters were fired for taking part, while off duty, in a Labor Day float that mocked the murder of a black man, James Byrd, by three white supremacists in Texas who dragged him, tied to the back of their pickup truck, to his death.
The details of that death are more gruesome than how Mr. Floyd died, but no more horrifying, when you consider that his killer, Derek Chauvin, was acting in his role as a Minneapolis police officer and none of his colleagues had the decency to stop him because they believed he held power over their futures in the department.
For those inclined to criticize Black Lives Matter, Mr. Floyd's death should serve as a reminder of why a movement was inspired by his murder. Those who think there was anything funny about it suffer from a spiritual poverty that will afflict them even if they kept their jobs and preserved their pensions and the other financial benefits of being a city firefighter.
The fact that the aggregate penalties meted out by the department were harsh compared to what it doled out in the past is less a testament to its getting tough than to the previous unwillingness to be tough far too often, with the conspicuous exception of the firing of those two firefighters 23 years ago. And that occurred largely because of the insistence of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani: the Federal Judge who nullified those firings (he was later overruled on appeal), said he was convinced that then-Commissioner Tom Von Essen would have spared them if he didn't fear displeasing his boss.
The FDNY has a nasty racial past, one that is as much a part of its history as the brave and glorious work its members have done over the years. That is why, among the shocking details in the New York Times story that brought the nine suspensions and the reason for them into public light, one of the most-disturbing was that for a 22-year period starting in 1997, the department used a training bulletin that stated team-building "encounters special problems when the team has to readjust to new members, minorities or females, or members who are problems because they do not behave."
How could that statement, which also was a product of the Giuliani administration and Mr. Von Essen's tenure as Commissioner, have survived so long without anyone noticing and concluding it was a problem? That is particularly so because of the lawsuit challenging Firefighter exams that was brought by the Vulcan Society that wound its way through the legal process and produced a 2011 ruling against the department and a $98-million settlement by the de Blasio administration three years later, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted on appealing the decision because it was such an embarrassment to him.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who has tried in recent years to bring the department out of the echo chamber that has allowed the less-savory aspects of its history to repeat itself, figured to be pressed on why any of the nine firefighters escaped with their jobs when he comes before U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis Oct. 8, as this newspaper goes to press.
Dellon Morgan, the president of the Vulcan Society, told this newspaper's Bob Hennelly that he didn't think the fire unions could do much to improve race relations in the department "because they have to back both parties when it's between two of their members."
Beyond their duty to represent the accused, there's another concern for the leaders of those unions: they can count well enough to know that with 75 percent of the firefighter force being white, pushing too hard to deal with racist conduct could cost them politically.
But putting an end to these kinds of incidents is in the best interests of every firefighter, regardless of race, color or gender. It goes beyond people making jerks of themselves in chat rooms or other social-media forums and gets to the heart of their work: they save lives, including their own, by working as a team.
Yet one of the accusations that surfaced in the Times article came from a black firefighter who said white colleagues in his firehouse stood by while he was taunted and physically assaulted by a white civilian with whom they had been drinking.
We don't know if his account is true, but we do know that it can't be dismissed, based on both the nine firefighters finding humor in Mr. Floyd's death and other racist behavior and utterances in the past—all of which make a mockery of that old bulletin stressing "team building."
Two decades ago, the motto from the movie "Gladiator"—"strength and honor"—became popular in many firehouses. Those who now populate them should ask what has to change before those words will truly apply to them and the department.