By Ron Howell
Colin Kaepernick is known nationwide for taking a stand – better said, taking a knee – for racial justice. He suffered the consequences of his bold action all alone. No football team hired the young quarterback. Right-wingers complained he had disrespected the sport and the nation.
But in recent weeks, Black athletes and others have joined arms in growing numbers to support Kaepernick. They have knelt during the singing of the National Anthem as he did, showing him the support that is surely giving comfort to the angels of the Civil Rights Movement.
Right here in Bedford-Stuyvesant, there is a man who some would call their own Colin Kaepernick. His name is Paul Washington and he is a captain in the New York City Fire Department.
Washington said he received a phone call on Tuesday, October 17, telling him he’s being investigated by the Fire Department, which is angry about a speech he gave to minority college students this past March at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He was trying to encourage youngsters to take the test to become firefighters.
And so, what made his bosses and other (white) firefighters so angry? Answer: He told his young Black and Brown audience to disregard what they hear all the time, that the job of fighting flames is only about running into burning buildings. No, he said. It’s also about money. “After five years, guys are making more than a hundred thousand a year,” he said. After 22 and a half years of service, you can retire at half-pay.
Here’s what really brought out the white flamethrowers. He told students last March that “We do not run into burning buildings”. Those who know him well say he was speaking from the heart, trying to realistically reflect the work he loves and that he wants more Black men and women to know and love.
Washington’s detractors, including white officials of the firefighters’ union, have failed to mention that right away Washington added, “It can be dangerous, but it’s not nearly as dangerous as people think”. Plus, he said, “It’s a great job, this job. It’s a great career”. What he loved the most about his career, he added, was that he felt he was always helping people. Whether someone was trying to get out of an apartment that’s on fire, or stuck in an elevator, or choking violently, he can almost always say that, “We’ve made things better”.
Last week, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro made things worse. He gave his “Memorial Day” speech honoring emergency responders who had lost their lives; and in doing so, he said, three times, that being a firefighter was about running into burning buildings. It was all an obvious slap at Washington. In reaction, Washington told the Chief Leader civil service newspaper that Nigro was “dog-whistling”, that he was playing to his base of firefighters, some already upset over Washington’s strenuous efforts over the years to integrate the Fire Department.
In 2008, when he was president of the Vulcan Society, the Crown Heights-based organization of Black firefighters, the group filed a suit against the city, saying racial biases were being applied in the hiring process. Federal District Judge Nicholas Garaufis determined that there had been a pattern of discrimination against Black candidates for the job. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio settled with the Vulcans, with a total payout of about $98 million, including compensation to those who had been unfairly treated. A result has been that recent hires have been the most racially diverse in the history of the department. Washington’s company, Engine Company 234 in Crown Heights, which he supervises, is the first majority-Black company in the history of the New York City Fire Department.
By the way: What was Washington’s supposed infraction that would allow the Fire Department to investigate him and take some kind of action against him? A New York Post article from September 2 says a Fire Department spokesman told them that “the department is reviewing the video (of Washington’s March talk to college students) to determine if Washington, who wore his uniform during the session, violated FDNY policies”.
That charge (unauthorized wearing of his uniform) would puzzle students and others who attend Career Days at Stephen Decatur Middle School (MS 35) in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Washington is one of a dozen or so professionals who regularly show up at those events, speaking in classrooms, telling the youngsters what they need to do to enter the respective careers. Washington, a devoted father of four, wears his uniform each time he goes.
Washington says he is deeply proud of a Black firefighter who is now president of the Vulcans. That new leader is Regina Wilson, the first woman to head the organization. This past Monday evening (October 16th), she led a Vulcan Society meeting at the group’s building in Crown Heights, where the members vowed to continue demanding that Washington, and Black job applicants, be treated fairly.
Reached by phone, Jimmy Tempro, a retired firefighter who, like Washington, lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said he and others have much work to do. Tempro was the first Black to receive the Fire Department’s James Gordon Bennett medal, given for heroism on the job. Recently, when Tempro learned that Bennett, a nineteenth century newspaper publisher, was pro-slavery, he asked that the Fire Department change the name of the award. Tempro said he hasn’t heard back yet from the department and that if he doesn’t hear back soon, he will return the medal.
Reflecting on the challenges of today, in the era of Donald Trump, Tempro said he recalls something that his tough mother, now deceased, used to say when raising him in pre-World War II Brooklyn. “When we saluted the flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance, her ending was always, ‘…with liberty and justice for all white people’.” Tempro laughed. Asked if he believed Colin Kaepernick would have pleased his mother, Tempro said, for sure. And he added that Paul Washington would have had her respect also.