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Fire Dept. numbers improved with court case; stuffed monkey shows attitudes didn't

Rod Watson

Just six months after a federal judge ended court oversight of the Buffalo Fire Department stemming from past discriminatory hiring practices, a black rookie firefighter was greeted with a stuffed monkey dressed in a firefighter’s uniform hanging at his South Buffalo firehouse.

Apparently, four decades of legal wrangling wasn’t enough to wipe out all of the racism.

In fact, two African-American retirees who fought their own battles over three decades think the courts need to step back in. And even they never encountered something as blatant as what the rookie saw his first day on the job a couple of weeks ago at Engine 4 on Abbott Road.

Nor was it the only such incident. Another stuffed monkey was hung on a Christmas tree at the firehouse at Seneca and Swan streets. Facebook posts show beer cans in white KKK hoods while a dark-colored beer bottle "hangs" from a refrigerator shelf, while another has black hair care products depicted as "everything you need to be a Eastside gangster."

The monkey incidents, first reported by WKBW-TV, and the Facebook posts don’t occur in a vacuum. In 2019, there obviously is a departmental culture that makes white firefighters think they can do this with impunity. And why not, if there is no punishment?

The attitudes toward blacks that underlie such incidents also raise larger questions about the bonds that are supposed to exist in a profession in which members count on one another in life-and-death situations.

"His first day on the job, and this is what he sees," said former firefighter Stephen L. Green, who retired six years ago after 34 years. "Now I ask you, if you were this young man, how willing would you be to put your safety in the hands of these people?"

Fire Commissioner William Renaldo said the rookie will be transferred to another station that has a larger, more diverse crew.

He said his understanding is that the monkey was gift from a special needs kid and had been displayed in various parts of the firehouse over the years. But Renaldo said he had never seen it.

Little wonder. I’m sure they wouldn’t do that when the brass was around.

One account even has a retired black firefighter originally displaying the monkey when it was given years ago, something Renaldo said he’s looking into. Even if true, it's no excuse. That firefighter should have explained to the kid – or his parents – the meaning of the monkey instead of hanging it on a wall.

As for it being visible over the years, no matter who originally put it there, it shouldn't be there now. Renaldo agrees and takes responsibility.

"That’s something I own up to. Obviously it shouldn’t have been placed there," he said, pointing to the "negative connotations it has." He dispatched two deputy commissioners to the firehouse to toss the monkey in the garbage and explain to the crew why it was wrong – something you would think wouldn’t be necessary given this country's past and present.

This stuffed monkey was on a Christmas tree in a downtown fire station housing Engine 32 and Ladder 5. (Photo courtesy of Rob Jackson)

Now the department is in the midst of a review "at the highest level" to get all the facts about the monkey’s history and placement. Renaldo said his senior staff was directed to scour firehouses and take down anything inappropriate and to talk with firefighters about what the city is trying to accomplish and why such displays are wrong.

In addition, the department is reviewing its policies on what is appropriate with city lawyers and is working with consultants to create a series of training sessions on diversity and inclusion.

Better late than never.

Renaldo met this week with William Andrews, president of the black firefighters society Men of Color Helping All (MOCHA), and former Common Council Member Charley H. Fischer III to outline the steps being taken.

Andrews said he was "very satisfied," adding that Renaldo tackled the problem immediately.

Fischer, a veteran of such battles who led demonstrations for minority hiring at SolarCity and on the Medical Campus as president of the Community Voice organization, was more circumspect. He liked what he heard but said, "We’ll have to wait and see" if the city follows through, adding that there also needs to be a process for protecting whistleblowers who reports incidents like this.

That’s important because, while no one has been punished for displaying the monkeys, there had been fears that the black rookie would be punished for using social media to complain about racism and going outside the chain of command. Renaldo said that fear was unfounded.

"I thanked him for bringing it to our attention," he said, though he would have liked to see the rookie go through the proper channels.

But if this is the culture that exists, how much faith can a young firefighter have in those channels?

While 40 years under a 1979 desegregation order obviously diversified the department, it apparently has done little to change the attitudes that made the court case necessary in the first place.

Listening to two black retirees give a Buffalo history lesson kids never learn in school, it’s clear that numbers alone – while important – don’t tell the whole story. The retirees describe:

• Blacks removed from hiring lists on the pretext that they changed addresses or phone numbers and couldn’t be contacted.

• Black liaisons chosen to work out issues with rookie black firefighters but whose "malleable" personalities meant they wouldn’t make waves, followed by black departmental officers with the same aversion to standing up.

• Drug testing that went by the name stitched on the uniform and didn’t require ID, which ended up targeting blacks because whites simply swapped shirts to make sure someone clean took the test that day.

• Black firefighters injured on duty but not classified as such when they retire, meaning they don’t get disability payments. "That’s strictly a black thing; it didn’t happen to whites," said Michael A. Brown, who spent 30 years in the department and also was a director of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.

• Pilfered copies of firefighter exams – something long rumored – to help whites prepare for and pass the tests, which Green said he witnessed firsthand when he visited a firehouse and saw whites going in and out of a closed room. When they were called out on a fire, he entered the room and found they had left the exam on the computer screen. "I saw it with my own eyes," Green said.

• The "black bunk" in the firehouse and dishes that got tossed after a black firefighter ate off of them. "I watched them throw the dishes in the garbage," Green said.

That Buffalo history recalls William Faulkner’s quote about the past not being past, and it forms the backdrop that explains how a monkey could be openly displayed in 2019 to greet a black newcomer.

The department has had a "conscious culture of intimidation and denial of equal rights," said Brown, a former MOCHA president who fought battles with the department and the union over everything from hiring exams to drug tests and even got sent to outpatient treatment for marijuana even though he said his sample was too small to even meet the testing requirement.

Since that time, the department has made undeniable strides in hiring while under the court order. Renaldo said minorities make up 35% of firefighters, 12% of lieutenants, 23% of captains and 5% of battalion chiefs. Two of the three deputy commissioners are African-American, while the third is Latino, said Shatorah Donovan, the city’s chief diversity officer.

Those numbers indicate progress and illustrate why the court stepped aside. But while the late federal Judge John Curtin is widely praised for overseeing the desegregation of the department – as well as the Police Department and city schools – Brown and Green say he didn’t do enough to hold the city’s feet to the fire. They say, for instance, terms like "applicant" were never adequately defined, giving the city too much room for interpretation.

They would like to see the courts get involved again, saying there’s "no way" the city can fix this on its own.

"It’s a systemic problem. It has never been addressed. It’s just been swept under the rug all these years," said retired firefighter Rob Jackson, who holds classes on his own for black rookies – including the Engine 4 rookie – at no charge to help them navigate the system and deal with the racism and other issues.

Renaldo doesn’t think more judicial involvement is necessary. He and Donovan point to the difficulty of changing organizational culture, but say it’s a young department and structures are being put in place so that people feel heard when issues like this arise.

"I’m confident we can do that," Renaldo said of changing the culture. "And we can move forward from this."

But two monkeys in the span of seven months, and no one punished? I wish I shared his confidence, but that doesn't sound like change to me.

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