Racism and Sexism in Houston Fire Department
La Raza Justice Movement, Quanell X and Shape Community Center are some of the signatories of this letter to Attorney General Holder. Press conference today!
Dear Eric Holder:
I am Shelby Stewart, a Civil Rights Activist and a Sergeant with the Houston Police Department. I have been serving my community for 27 years with pride and honor. We citizens in the city of Houston have been observing serious and varied problems within the Houston Fire Department. They are escalating.
We are heartened to learn that the Justice Department will be stepping in to address the well-documented recent problems of rampant firehouse racism and sexism. This letter is a request that your investigation be sweeping and far-reaching. Among other issues, we have hangman’s nooses being displayed in Houston’s firehouses.
There have been three reported displays of hangman’s nooses in the HFD during the past year. In the first, a cadet fashioned a noose and hung a Gatorade bottle from it and told a Black firefighter in jest “this is you.” For this the cadet was given the option of resigning or being dismissed. By resigning, he could reapply, reenter, and complete his training. He is now in the Fire Academy.
The second noose was observed in a Captain’s locker at Station #41 in February 2009. Rather than report it to that Captain, a firefighter reported it to an Assistant Chief. Result: both the Captain and the firefighter received similar written reprimands, the Captain for the noose and the firefighter for failure to report through the chain of command.
On July 4, 2009 we all celebrated being one nation. Two days later, on July 6, the third noose was observed and reported at yet another Station. Two firefighters reported the individual who displayed it. In all three of these hangman’s noose incidents virtually no punishment was administered, and the issue of a hangman’s noose was not addressed at all. Nothing. We can assign no motive to this, but the significance of the hangman’s noose is unambiguous. It was tolerated at all levels—in cadet school, in station houses by firefighters, by a Captain, by two Assistant Chiefs, and by the Chief himself. And the Mayor was aware of it for 14 weeks and did absolutely nothing of record. It was trivialized, ignored, and tolerated at every level, from the very bottom to the very top.
I have followed this as a civil rights activist since its inception and because for some 14 weeks there has been no help from any “major” civil rights organizations, nor from local ministries—great or small.
We in the minority community were greatly concerned about a senior Captain displaying a racist symbol of hate in his locker. What was his purpose, to intimidate and frighten other African Americans that either work at the station or who visit the station? Was it there to let other white firefighters understand that they could harm or disrespect African Americans or other minorities and women at that station and it could occur with the blessing of the Captain? We in the African American community could not sit idly by while Black firefighters were being intimidated by racist symbols of hate. With no recourse, the avenue of remedy is just a cul-de-sac. Furthermore, we sincerely believe that the decision to slap the Captain on the wrist would embolden racist elements in the fire department and other racist acts would surely occur. We were right.
Allow me to give you a timeline.
- February 17, 2009: the noose was observed in the Captain’s locker
- March 31, 2009: President of the Black Firefighters Union, Otis Jordan went before Mayor Bill White and the City Council to question whether a simple, written reprimand was justifiable as punishment for a Captain who openly displayed, in this city’s workplace, the classic, historical symbol of African-America’s greatest pain and America’s greatest shame. Otis Jordan also spoke about discrimination, racism, sexism and retaliation against minorities in the Houston Fire Department. The City Council agreed that punishment should be more severe. Amazingly, Mayor White took an opposing advocate’s view. In his own words: “…I believe that firefighter, I believe the next person, in their locker, and they say, you know, in off-time, based on what the person does outside of work, ‘I practice knot-tying with that rope.’” It was set aside.
- May 12, 2009: I, along with Community Activist Derrick Muhammad, went before Mayor Bill White and the Houston City Council to speak to the inadequate punishment that was received for displaying a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan on City of Houston Property. I asked Mayor Bill White had he had a meeting with his council in regards to this serious issue. Bill White had not had a meeting with his full council on this serious issue during a period of almost 12 weeks. Mayor Bill White had not even taken the time to meet with his council on such a volatile serious and dangerous issue.
- May 14, 2009: A profanity-laced racist tirade was heard over the fire department radio frequency waves degrading the NAACP, ACLU and the United Negro College Fund in a conversation believed to be between white firefighters.
- May 27, 2009: I, along with Activist Derrick Muhammad, returned to City Hall to inquire as to what had been done in regards to the issue of racist symbols of hate in the fire department. I again asked Mayor Bill White directly if he had convened any meetings of his Houston City Council on this issue. This time the mayor simply refused to answer. In a period of 14 weeks the Mayor had not even taken the time to meet with his full council on such a dangerous and serious issue.
- July 7, 2009: Two female firefighters, one Black and one White were subjected to death threats, their property defaced and destroyed. There was racist and sexist graffiti. Female firefighter Jane Draycott had a photograph of her and her deceased daughter. Everyone in that station knew of Draycott’s daughter’s death in an automobile accident. Someone wrote “die” on Draycott’s face and “dead” on the face of her daughter. It was intended to cause her unspeakable pain. And it did.
- July 9, 2009: Story on Channel 11 CBS Houston TX (Retired Female Firefighter Speaks out)
- July 9, 2009: Story on Channel 11 CBS Houston TX (Racism, Discrimination Widespread Inside Houston Fire Department.
I have sat down and spoken with male and female minority firefighters who are working in a system where they believe there is no sense of justice or fair play. They work in a system where the Captains of the station have ultimate power. These firefighters know and understand that if they try to make a legitimate complaint about being disrespected as in the female firefighter who had a banana taped to her bed in an erect position, as in the case of the female fire fighter on the July 9, 2009 story on channel 11. She said in the story that she confronted the male firefighter about this incident. A few months later the same male fire fighter relieved himself in a sexual manner in front of this female fire fighter. This same male firefighter was later promoted to Captain. It is believed by some female firefighters that if that firefighter goes to her captain and makes a complaint against that fireman, the captain may say to her that she’s too sensitive. It was just horseplay. If that female firefighter insists on making a formal complaint then the captain would suggest that she not register a formal complaint about it because she could be creating a lot of problems for herself. That firefighter knows that the Captain holds her career in his hands because with the power he has to run that station he could write her up until she got fired. He could create a complaint of insubordination. She could receive a 9-day suspension just based on the word of a racist or sexist Captain who would tolerate her being groped and disrespected. Minority men and women and white women work in a world where they elect to be subjugated to second class status every day they come to work. They have nowhere to turn. In this system people will rarely seek outside help because of constant fear.
There is no way to find out how deep and wide these problems are within the Houston Fire Department without the sincere intervention of the Department of Justice. These firefighters need you. Some of the people who have been victims of this racism will now speak because they know that you will come. Mayor White has said that this incident would be handled and investigated by the OIG (Office of the Inspector General.) I have spoken to many minority and female firefighters about the OIG, and I can say with certitude that every person I spoke with had zero confidence and did not trust the OIG. I spoke to firefighters who said that after they made a complaint to the OIG that often times the people at their stations knew about this confidential complaint before they returned to their station. I spoke to firefighters who informed me that after they would make a complaint against a superior they would be the ones to receive a suspension. If a superior did receive a suspension, when it was time for the hearing on the issue, that they would receive no notification on the hearing and the suspension time that the superior had received would be given back to him. What is most alarming is that formal complaints filed with the EEOC yielded identical results. Bad news would be waiting for the complaining party by the time they returned to their job sites.
The discipline situation needs to be looked at with a microscope. One needs to look at statistical graphs of the past decade and compare the penalties given to African Americans as opposed to whites, category by category. These numbers are extremely important for a true and accurate gauge of practices throughout the Houston Fire Department. I spoke to female firefighters who informed me that if they were hurt on duty they would have to use up all of their sick time, but if a white female was hurt they would find a light duty assignment for her so that she could retain her sick time. Black females have been told that there are no light duty assignments for women. But they do find them for white women. A Black female who was on probation was given a list of orders by a white Captain. One of the orders was for her to slide down the pole at this station. At the Fire Academy they were not trained to slide down the pole. The pole is 38 feet high, almost 4 stories high. The Black female fearing for her job slid down the pole and blew out both her knees and she had to have reconstructive surgery on both. She was in the hospital for seven days and bedridden for almost a year and a half. While at home recuperating, she received threatening calls from a fire department official who told her that if she did not call in on time she would be counted as AWOL.
The horror stories are truly frightening. This could be why the Mayor does not want the Department of Justice to examine the racism and sexism within the Houston Fire Department during this critical time. Mayor White wants a program that would make people more sensitive to others in the workplace. We feel that this is strictly a law enforcement issue. We don’t believe that all Houston firefighters are racist, but there are those firefighters who observe racist behavior and do nothing about it. I have received information that there is unfair treatment in overtime, discipline, access to training classes, and special assignments. Respectfully we believe that unless Mayor White fully acknowledges the problems, they cannot be solved. Two female firefighters have had death threats, their property destroyed, and face bowls and living areas urinated over. They are not being protected.
The situation is out of control and these are very stressful and dangerous times. We cannot wait until someone is seriously hurt, or worse. Further neglect is not an option.
There is a systemic problem that can only be remedied by an outside entity. The Department of Justice is most qualified. We need your firm hand.
The nightmares that Paula Keys and Jane Draycott had to endure at Station 54 are astounding. The Houston Chronicle on July 19, 2009 printed a story that said that months before the two Houston female firefighters found racist and sexist death threats scrawled on the walls and lockers of the women’s dormitory inside Station 54 their supervising Captains knew that chaos was in the making. These women had to endure urine left splattered in their bathroom. Lockers had keyholes but no keys. A cold water valve deliberately “turned off”, ensuring a scalding shower. The Daily Captain’s Log shows that Draycott complained at least six times since April 1 that they had been harassed by their male co-workers. These revelations are extremely telling. You have multiple Captains who know that the two female firefighters at Station 54 are constantly being harassed and subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment and no investigation was initiated. That borders on criminality and dereliction of duty, that all of these officials in positions of power would ignore the cries for help from Paula Keys and Jane Draycott. The fact that Chief Boriskie would say that the first time he read the excerpts from the Captain’s Log is on July 17, 2009 and this incident happened on July 7, 2009 is also telling. Chief Boriskie was not concerned enough about death threats to two female firefighters and the barbaric treatment they had to endure to look at those logs and speak to those Captains on July 8, 2009. The Chief finally decides to read those logs after he knows the Houston Chronicle will get them and expose all of this unknown information. Mayor Bill White still has full confidence in him. He says he “backs the Chief.”
There have been three incidents of nooses being displayed and reported and there has been no severe punishment for racist symbols of hate indicates too many people that this Fire Department, this Chief and his Command Staff have no respect for African Americans. This tolerance of these symbols of the Ku Klux Klan and this mindset are more than likely the root causes of the racist and sexist environment within the Houston Fire Department. I fear that because this is so deeply ingrained within this culture, that the only solution to rid this department of these demons of racism, sexism and hate is a thorough investigation from the Department of Justice and regulations and rules put in place to sanction racist behavior with severe punishments. There are some that believe that Mayor Bill White does not care if the Justice Department looks into this issue because he knows that since he is a Democrat in Texas and the Democratic party is in power that a quick investigation will be done to give him a clean bill of health to help him in his run for the senate. Attorney General Holder I hope and pray that this is not the case. The fact that this has existed for so long indicates clearly that veteran firefighters have accepted this culture of cruelty, or cruel indifference. Young firefighters go along to get along instead of incurring the wrath of their supervisors. The powers that be have fostered and nurtured the status quo and no one faces consequences for crimes against minorities. The failure of so-called decent and moderate persons to take an uncompromising stand for justice is conspicuously absent. Nothing has been done for the sake of Justice and a civilized society.
With great respect,