Derek Chauvin
THIS KILLER'S NO MARTYR: Former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, seen here at his trial, at right, was convicted of murdering George Floyd by pressing his knee into his neck for more than nine minutes, yet some white city firefighters six months ago shared images mocking Mr. Floyd's May 2020 death. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who suspended nine of them while forcing one to resign to avoid being fired, told the New York Times, 'A man died in the street, and you're using that image as some sort of humor?'

This was this reaction from a veteran firefighter who's a liberal to the New York Times article detailing racism in the Fire Department, including the mocking of George Floyd's death: "Absolutely sickens me."

And here's the reaction from a conservative firefighter of similar vintage regarding nine colleagues who got suspended for their transgressions: "They've been told to stay off chat rooms and social media by the union. The guys just don't get it. They think they got a right, and they just don't get it."

He continued, "...you can't tell these morons nothing. They just don't listen. It's not just the Fire Department; people just don't have common sense" when it comes to understanding that holding a public-safety job places certain restraints on what you can say or write without getting yourself into trouble. 

This firefighter, who spoke conditioned on not being quoted by name, implied that mocking Mr. Floyd, who died at the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin after he resisted arrest on Memorial Day last year, was not as egregious as the act of two white Firefighters in 1998 who got fired for taking part in a racist float during a Broad Channel, Queens Labor Day Parade while mocking the dragging death of a black man by white supremacists.

"That was a lynching," the firefighter said of the murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas after he accepted a ride from the men, who proceeded to torture him before tying him to the back of their pick-up truck and driving with him bound and hanging off it until he was fatally injured.

Chauvin Also Had Accomplices

But "lynching" is a term that also could be applied to Mr. Floyd's death. Officer Chauvin's accomplices, unwilling or not, were fellow cops who didn't intervene, even as they witnessed the life ebbing from the black man's body as the cop kept his knee pressed against his neck for nearly 10 minutes, because they feared internal consequences if they pulled their more-senior colleague off. People on the street watched in horror as a cop under the color of law turned into an inhuman brute, because they, too, feared the consequences of crossing someone with a gun and a badge.

Yet the New York Times story that broke Oct. 1 of recurring racism in the firefighter ranks detailed a text message among white firefighters that was leaked six months ago including "overtly racist memes, comments and jokes about Mr. Floyd's death. In one meme, a Sesame Street character refuses a salary when becoming a police officer, because 'being able to legally shoot Black children is payment enough'...Another image showed a faked image of a dating profile for Mr. Floyd. His 'match' was a white man's knee."   

The article also noted that during the demonstrations in New York triggered by Mr. Floyd's death, three FDNY Lieutenants "discussed turning fire hoses on protesters, prompting debates about whether the tactic would work, because 'wild animals like water.'"

In the wake of complaints by black firefighters, the story said, "the department quietly suspended nine firefighters without pay...A spokesman described the punishments as the most-severe discipline handed down in the history of the department, which rarely terminates its members or suspends them for long periods of time." 

Perhaps the quiet surrounding the suspensions is why the problem persists. Fire Capt. Paul Washington, a former president of the FDNY Vulcan Society, when asked what the department wasn't doing to prevent recurrences of this kind of racism in the ranks, said Oct. 4, "One thing the Fire Department could do is publicize that they caught these guys, and how they caught them. Every firefighter on the job shouldn't have to read it in the New York Times before they realize these people were caught and punished."

A 33-year veteran of the department whose father and brother were also firefighters, Mr. Washington too many times has heard the defense from FDNY officials and union leaders that whatever racial problems have surfaced over the years, the firefighting forcewhich was 93 percent white when he joined the departmentgives the same effort in responding to every fire regardless of the race of the victims.

'A Lot More to the Job'

Asked if he bought that rationale, he replied, "No, and there's a lot more than fighting fires to doing our job while interacting with the public. To pretend that you can have such disdain, with some of these memes, for black people and then serve them adequately is really questionable."

And, Captain Washington said, "I would think you should get fired for some of these actions."

The conspicuous example that you could be terminated for that kind of behavior came in response to that Broad Channel Parade, and the unlikely driving force behind it was Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has never been viewed as a crusader for racial justice. In fact, the initial two Firefighter exams that were the basis for the Vulcan Society's successful lawsuit challenging FDNY hiring practices were developed during Mr. Giuliani's tenure, although the second one wasn't given until 2002, a year after he left office.

The problem for Firefighters Robert Steiner and Jonathan Walters, as well as Police Officer Joseph Locurto, was that their antics on the float in Broad Channel wound up on the local TV news shows, mocking Mr. Byrd's murder just three months after it occurred. Firefighter Walters added a particularly ghoulish touch when he decided to hang from the back of the float to "recreate" Mr. Byrd's dragging death while offering a play-by-play to the crowd.

A day or two after the clips aired, Mr. Giuliani in the City Hall Blue Room declared that while he was barred from immediately firing them by civil-service law, "They're never getting back into the Police Department or the Fire Department" once their department-imposed suspensions ran their course.

"They can no longer be trusted to be public employees of the City of New York," he said, because the perception was that they had proved themselves incapable of treating people of all races fairly. 

"We have the right to come to the conclusion that they're irresponsible...that you lack the judgment or the maturity to be a firefighter or a police officer," the then-Mayor said.

Unions' Contrasting Responses

One sign of the burden of having a force that skewed so heavily white was reflected in the differing reactions from the unions representing the three men.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association issued a statement through its counsel, Michael Block, saying that it would support the two Firefighters' legal efforts to retain their jobs, because as deplorable as their conduct might have been during the Broad Channel event, their clean records until then argued against their terminations.

On the other hand, then-Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Lou Matarazzo issued a statement saying his union "condemns racism in any form, by whites or blacks, police officers or anyone else. PBA lawyers will not defend police officers who actively participated in any way in this disgraceful racist incident."

The UFA sued on behalf of the two Firefighters, while Mr. Locurto retained a lawyer at his own expense. In July 2003nearly five years after the incidentU.S. District Judge John Sprizzo ruled that the Fire Department went too far in firing Mr. Steiner and Mr. Walters, citing far-less-severe penalties it had given other firefighters who exhibited racist attitudes in the past. He also noted in his decision that the NYPD had not previously treated verbal racism as a firing offense, mentioning one cop who in 1992 told black officers with whom he worked at the 75th Precinct in East New York, "If you get it wrong, I will take you out and hang you from a tree."

That remark, the Judge noted, got the officerwho he noted had a prior history of disciplinary problemsjust a 20-day suspension and the loss of 30 vacation days. He also pointed to an incident that same year in which a cop who arrived at a crime scene told his partner, in the presence of two civilian witnesses, "Oh, it's just another nigger stabbed," and escaped with just the loss of 10 vacation days.

Two years later, Judge Sprizzo noted, in a case that occurred during Mr. Giuliani's first year in office, an off-duty cop who wound up in a traffic dispute told the other driver, "You f------ spic, keep going or I'm going to put six bullets in your head."

Rudy's Leap to Judgment 

All that got him was a 20-day suspension, the Judge noted. This convinced him that what led the Police and Fire Departments to fire the three men was that their racist behavior came to light just a few days after Mr. Giuliani brought an abrupt end to the Million Youth March in Harlem by having NYPD helicopters buzz the crowd, earning him new charges of racial insensitivity in the media. The Judge wrote in his ruling that the Mayor announced his decision to reporters before he knew all the facts, and made up his Commissioners' minds as well.   

Mr. Giuliani had vowed at the time he learned of that incident that Mr. Steiner, Mr. Walters and Mr. Locurto would have to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to get their jobs back, and his successor, Michael Bloomberg, appealed Judge Sprizzo's ruling

In 2006, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel  overturned that decision, stating, "The First Amendment does not require a government employer to sit idly by while its employees insult those they are hired to serve and protect...one's right to be a police officer or firefighter who publicly ridicules those he is commissioned to protect and serve is far from absolute." It went on to state that the employer's motive for firing the three men "outweighed the plaintiffs' individual First Amendment rights."

There might be some question in the more-recent cases as to whether the suspended firefighters who exhibited their stupidity in a chatroom were unaware that it amounted to misconduct in a public forum, in the way that the clowning on the Broad Channel float unambiguously was. But maybe not, since it's at least possible the Broad Channel miscreants could argue they hadn't foreseen their bad behavior winding up on the evening news any more than the current crop of bright boys expected to make the front page of The Times.

And it would be unrealistic to think that firefighters who ignored the warnings of their unions to be careful about what they said online would even be aware of the fate of Broad Channel's version of The Three Stooges. Even though the 2011 ruling that past Firefighter exams were discriminatory against black candidates accelerated the integration of a force that is now 25 percent people of color, the recent revelations suggest that racial resentmentsome of it the product of that ruling by a Brooklyn Federal Judge who labeled the department "a stubborn bastion of white, male privilege"still runs high among some white firefighters. 

Get Warned in Academy

Deputy Fire Commissioner for Public Information Frank Dwyer, asked whether the department should consider including extensive information about the Broad Channel debacle in its Fire Academy curriculum for new recruits, replied in an email, "That specific case/topic is already discussed extensively by our [Equal Employment Opportunity Office] in their training regarding social media. This training is required for all members."

He added, "At the start of every Probationary Firefighter class, the Fire Commissioner and Chief of Department go to meet with instructors to reiterate Department policies and remind what is expected of them during training."

Perhaps their instruction, if it isn't doing so already, should include a chronology of the odyssey of ex-Firefighters Steiner and Walters. Nearly eight years had elapsed from their appearance on the Labor Day float to the Court of Appeals ruling that effectively ended their chances of reinstatement to the department. If they had appealed to the Supreme Court and got a ruling in their favor, by that point it's likely that 10 years would have passed since the suspensions that culminated in their firings.

And that was before the ruling in their case that established a precedent that current firefighters would disregard at their own risk. It may explain why the firefighter who received the longest suspension180 days unpaidagreed to resign at its conclusion rather than take his chances with a lawsuit contesting a firing if he hadn't.

One indication of why having a lack of diversity at the top of an organization can lead to blind spots was the revelation in the Times article that until two years ago, a 1997 training bulletin was still in use for FDNY managers stating: "Motivation in firefighting is largely a matter of team building. 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."

A Cave-Dweller View

The language in that bulletin at the time it was written--nearly two decades after lawsuits increased minority representation in the firefighter ranks and gave women admission to them--showed that the echo chamber in the department's upper ranks had caused a hardening of the brain arteries.

Allowing for the reality that in the aftermath of 9/11, FDNY leaders had greater concerns than bringing the department's training bulletin out of the Stone Age, you would have thought that by the time in 2007 that the U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush--who was endorsed for a second term by the UFA during the 2004 Republican Convention here that the rest of the city labor movement was protesting--joined the Vulcans' lawsuit alleging hiring discrimination, someone might have taken a close look at this guidance while the city was preparing its court defense.

Yet that language survived beyond the 2011 finding of testing bias, and the 2014 settlement reached by the de Blasio administration. Mr. Dwyer told The Times that the suspicion expressed about women and minority members in that instruction "does not reflect the FDNY today." But it sure took a while before someone figured out how stale and hoary that part of the training curriculum was.

The Times piece concluded with remarks by Firefighter Regina Wilson, another former Vulcan Society President, who said, "These white firefighters know the value of the job. That's why they drive an hour and a half to come and work in Bed-Stuy and Brownsville."

A Kind of IQ Test

The combination of the prestige of being a New York City Firefighter, a decent salary and excellent health and pension benefits plus a $12,500 annual Variable Supplements Fund payment for those who retire after 20 years' service are the same inducements that have led firefighters of color to take the job, even in the face of less-than-welcoming treatment from some of their white colleagues.

Risking the loss of it all to indulge prejudices while bleating about free-speech rights is the equivalent of failing exams in both math and logic. Those who haven't grasped that they don't have to like everyone they work with, as long as they get along well enough with them not to embarrass themselves or the department, don't deserve their jobs.

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