Black firefighter takes heat after taking knee at police-fire football game

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Camron McGarity takes a knee during the national anthem before a charity football game honoring slain CPD Cmdr. Paul Bauer and CFD diver Juan Bucio. | Provided photo by Judy Austerd

A political and emotional brush fire is smoldering within a grieving Chicago Fire Department over a national anthem protest that marred a charity football game dedicated to the memory of two fallen Chicago heroes.

Camron McGarity, an African-American firefighter, kneeled while the Star Spangled Banner was being played before the CFD Blaze faced off against the Chicago Police Department’s Enforcers last Saturday in the eighth annual “First Responders Bowl.”

A photo of the protest clearly shows the firefighter, wearing the No. 7 jersey, kneeling on the sidelines while players on either side stood at attention dressed in bright red jerseys and matching red pants.

Fired Chicago Police Superintendent-turned-mayoral-challenger Garry McCarthy, who was at the game at Brother Rice High School on the Southwest Side, said the solo protest generated plenty of “grumbling” among the crowd of roughly 1,000, in part, because the game was dedicated to the memory of slain 18th District Commander Paul Bauer and former dive team member Juan Bucio, who died during a Memorial Day rescue on the Chicago River.

Sources said teammates found McGarity’s protest so disrespectful to the families of Bauer and Bucio, there’s been internal talk about kicking him off the team next season.

But that’s apparently as far as the punishment will go.

Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago, a retired Marine, has no plan to discipline or even reprimand McGarity, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

“It appears the member is expressing his First Amendment right to demonstrate,” Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

McCarthy said that’s probably the right call.

“During the [2012] NATO Summit, I talked about the fact that I would protect peoples’ First Amendment right to free speech, whether I agreed with them or not. And it’s really the same thing here,” said McCarthy, who played in the game when he was the city’s top cop. “As an American and as the son of a World War II veteran who was injured on Mount Suribachi –– that iconic [Iwo Jima] photo that everybody in the world is aware of — I was raised with incredible reverence for this country and the flag. Having said that, while I may disagree personally with anybody who engages in some sort of behavior like that, I still respect the right to free speech.”

McCarthy said he considered McGarity’s protest “inappropriate behavior” because it distracted from “what the game was all about. . . . The game was played in honor of Bucio and Paul Bauer.”

The former superintendent hesitated when asked whether he would have disciplined or even reprimanded a police officer under his command who did what McGarity did.

“I don’t know. That’s a tough question. It’s a very sensitive subject. And there’s two sides to it. It’s a tough line to walk,” he said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel had no immediate comment about McGarity.

The situation mirrors the national controversy touched off by NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, the tweet storm it triggered from President Donald Trump and the more recent decision by NFL owners to compel players to stand on the field when the anthem is played or face stiff fines.

RELATED: Members of Congress try to pin down Bears chairman over NFL’s anthem protest

Judy Austerd was so outraged by the protest, she sent a photo of McGarity kneeling on the sidelines to the Sun-Times.

“I, like many who have also seen it, am angry, disappointed and embarrassed,” she wrote in an email. “Do the coaches/managers and players on this team believe that this manner of disrespect to the families of Bauer and Bucio is tolerable? . . . Is this not what is known as ‘conduct unbecoming a sworn member?’

“Exactly what are you protesting, seeing that you have what I’ve heard referred as a dream job that is treasured by many and hoped for by many more,” Austerd also wrote. “Other than afford you the honor and privilege to serve alongside some of the most noble men and women that this city has to offer, how have you been mistreated?”

Last fall, the Chicago Police Department reprimanded two uniformed African-American officers photographed “taking a knee” with their fists raised in the lobby of a South Side police station alongside Aleta Clark, an anti-violence activist in Englewood.

It happened after Clark asked the officers to join her in protest, then posted the photo on Instagram.

Emanuel supported the reprimand. But he acknowledged then that the officers were caught between principles “in conflict” — the need to build community relations and the ban on making political statements while in uniform.

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