Firefighters Union president apologizes for protest during national anthem

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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

The president of the Chicago Firefighters Union is apologizing for a protest during the national anthem that marred a charity football game dedicated to the memory of two fallen Chicago heroes.

Local 2 President Jim Tracy said he was “appalled and embarrassed” about what he called the “classless behavior of one of our members” during the “First Responders Bowl” at Brother Rice High school last weekend.

Tracy was referring to African-American firefighter Camron McGarity, who kneeled while the Star Spangled Banner was played before the Fire Department Blaze faced off against the Chicago Police Department Enforcers.

“This game was about honoring our Line of Duty Death Brothers Paul Bauer, CPD and Juan Bucio, CFD and their families for their bravery and commitment to the City of Chicago,” Tracy wrote in a “Dear Brothers and Sisters” email to the rank-and-file.

“This was not the place to make a self-serving, attention-drawing, pot-stirring statement. This person has not made this statement at any other games this year. He chose this game for this classless act for his own personal gain.”

He added, “I apologize to all the CPD and CFD players, their families and friends who were upset by this selfless act.” Tracy apparently meant to write “selfish.”

Tracy noted the annual game is a “great fundraiser against our rivals the CPD Enforcers, which benefits our Gold Badge and Gold Star widows and orphans.”

“It’s very competitive and a lot of fun, and I hope that we can continue this yearly fund raiser,” he wrote.

McGarity could not be reached for comment.

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

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this week that a political brush fire was raging through a still-grieving Chicago Fire Department over McGarrity’s national anthem protest.

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 there, 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 former 18th District Commander Paul Bauer and former dive team member Juan Bucio.

Bauer, the 53-year-old commander of the Near North District, was shot six times Feb. 13 in a stairwell outside the Thompson Center, where he had confronted a man who was fleeing other officers.

Shomari Legghette, a career criminal wearing body armor, was charged and held without bond for Bauer’s murder.

Bucio, 46, died on Memorial Day during a failed attempt to rescue a man who also died in the South Branch of the Chicago River. He was buried earlier this week after a funeral that drew firefighters and first-responders from cities and towns across the Midwest.

Sources said teammates found McGarity’s protest so disrespectful to the heroes for whom the charity game was dedicated, there’s been internal talk about kicking him off the team next season.

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

Sources said former Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago, a retired Marine, has no plan to discipline or even reprimand McGarity.

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

McCarthy said that’s probably the right call, even though police officers can be held accountable for off-duty behavior viewed as “conduct unbecoming” a police officer.

“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,” McCarthy said.

“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.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to comment about the Chicago protest.

It mirrored 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 on the field when the anthem is played to either stand or face stiff fines.

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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