Firefighter who tore down Black Lives Matter banner slapped with ‘lengthy’ suspension

But a suspension wasn’t good enough for Ald. Sophia King (4th), who represents the ward where the Aug. 1 incident occurred. King wants retiring Commissioner Richard Ford II to reassign those involved.

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Retired Black Chicago firefighters rally outside Station 45 in Bronzeville on Tuesday.

Retired firefighters and supporters held a news conference outside Station 45, 4600 S. Cottage Grove Ave., in Bronzeville, just days after a man in a CFD truck was seen taking down a Black Lives Matter banner.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A Chicago firefighter accused of taking down a Black Lives Matter banner hung on a Kenwood neighborhood fence has been slapped with a “lengthy” suspension, outraged aldermen were told Wednesday.

Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II disclosed the punishment — without revealing the specific number of unpaid days off — during his final turn on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings.

He is retiring in April, when he reaches the Chicago Fire Department’s mandatory retirement age of 63.

Ald. Sophia King (4th), whose ward includes Kenwood, asked Ford whether the “firefighters” responsible for the Aug. 1 incident would face “any disciplinary action.”

Ford told her the punishment has already been handed down, but only against one firefighter, not two.

“The Fire Department does not allow that type of behavior. That conduct will not be tolerated. There’s nowhere on the Fire Department that that’s acceptable. The offending member will be held responsible and accountable. And discipline has been put out,” Ford said.

Pressed for specifics, Ford replied: “It is a lengthy suspension. That’s the best I can say,” adding that the suspension will “happen soon.”

King was apparently not satisfied with a “lengthy” suspension.

“Will they be moved to a different facility? Is that part of it?” she asked.

Ford replied, “No, ma’am. That is not part of it. We have taken that under consideration. But we also have to deal with our legal and the union.”

That prompted King to ask whether “location and placement” was “dictated” by the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

Richard C. Ford II, commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department.

Richard C. Ford II, commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department, testified Wednesday at a City Council budget hearing.

Sun-Times file

Ford countered that assignments are an administrative function, but, “I don’t want it to appear that I’m [imposing] double-discipline.”

King held her ground.

“Given that it is an administrative function, can you look at the diversity at a particular station as it relates to the community? Especially given these actions, it would behoove us to make sure that the representation is reflective more of the community because of things like this,” she said.

Ford assured the alderman that there are “a number of people there at that particular facility that are African American.”

King was not appeased.

“I’m not talking about just that one specifically. I’m talking about throughout the city as you make those types of decisions. Given kind of the history and given this particular incident, those types of things should be taken into consideration,” she said.

In 1987, firefighter James McNally, who would go on to serve as president of Local 2, showed up for his shift at Station 45 in blackface to protest an affirmative action policy.

The Chicago Fire Department has a long and documented history of discrimination and racial hijinks.

The latest chapter occurred Aug. 1, when two white men were spotted getting out of CFD truck No. 15 on Cornell Drive near 47th Street and taking down a Black Lives Matter banner.

An internal investigation was launched after a woman who lives in the area posted about the incident on a neighborhood watch group’s social media platform.

A few days later, a group of retired African American firefighters held a news conference outside the Station 45 in Bronzeville to say they were disgusted, but not surprised by the incident.

“We could write a few books about what we have experienced as racism in this town, as city workers,” 70-year-old Ezra McCann said on that day. 

“Racism equates to poor service. If this is what we’ve got servicing us in our community, we’re not sure that our people are being respected and served correctly. … We think these men here need to be lifted out of our community, and maybe they need to go somewhere where they won’t have to come in contact with Black people.”

McCann was responsible for giving the city’s Law Department a copy of the videotape of a raucous 1990 retirement party at Engine 100 in a failed attempt to derail City Council ratification of a new firefighters contract in 1997.

Firefighters were captured on that tape drinking, using racial slurs and exposing themselves. McNally was among those suspended for attending the party. Fallout led to the 1999 resignation of then-Fire Commissioner Edward Altman and his son, Edward Altman Jr., former head of the Fire Department’s Internal Affairs Division.

In 1998, the city fired seven firefighters and suspended 21 others captured on Engine 100 tape, only to have an independent arbitrator overturn the discipline on grounds that the city violated the collective bargaining agreement requiring an immediate investigation. The city waited more than six months to launch a probe after learning of the tape.

The Daley administration subsequently convinced the Illinois Appellate Court that the reversals were against public policy.

In November 2002, the same arbitrator ruled that the seven fired firefighters should have been suspended instead, noting their work history was “unblemished.”

They didn’t receive back pay for the 4 1/2 years they were out of work. But, the city was ordered to restore their pension benefits and rehire them within 45 days.

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