Nine members of the NYC Fire Department were suspended after an investigation revealed they shared racist messages and memes in the wake of George Floyd's murder. According to The New York Times, it was the complaints of Black firefighters that launched the Department's biggest suspensions ever.
The culture inside FDNY is no stranger to racism, one Black firefighter told The Times. White colleagues started calling Kareem Charles "Kool Aid" while training at the academy in 2015, but Charles said he "chose not to escalate the issue," on the advice of other Black firefighters who warned him about the culture and retaliation.
Charles and other Black firefighters spoke out after they saw the racist text messages and memes their white coworkers shared to mock Floyd's death. According to the Black firefighters' account, their colleagues had bragged about how police officers could "legally shoot Black children," and a lieutenant proposed the ideas of turning water hoses onto protesters, to which some replied the tactic wouldn't work because "wild animals like water."
The Department suspended nine of the firefighters involved, ranging from four to 180 days. The commissioner said one of the firefighters is going to leave the department altogether following the suspension.
One FDNY spokesperson told The Times the punishment was the most severe in the department's history, but Black firefighters said it wasn't enough.
"At first, it feels like you're part of something," Charles told the outlet. "And then it feels like sort of a lie. And you feel they just needed you for numbers." Charles left FDNY in December 2020.
FDNY is the nation's largest fire department, with more than 11,000 members, most of whom are white. At least 75% of FDNY is white, compared to 47% of NYPD being white.
Firefighters, The Times pointed out, are not often seen in the same way police are when racism is being discussed –– particularly because they can't use deadly force while on the job. The inner workings of the FDNY show how and why many people of color and women might be hesitant to join and even getting a diverse department, Black firefighters say, isn't enough to change the culture.
"This is a brotherhood, right? Don't tell me about brotherhood," Regina Wilson, a member of FDNY, told The Times. "Don't tell me, 'We'll never forget,' and we'll take care of you and your family when you're gone, when you're not taking care of me while I'm here, I'm working and I'm alive."
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