Two firefighters and a police officer went to trial this week to fight for the jobs they lost after they participated in a controversial skit during a 1998 Labor Day Parade in Broad Channel.
The three men, dressed in blackface and Afro wigs, rode on a float that satirized the dragging death of James Byrd, an African-American, in Texas, the previous summer. A sign on the side of the float read “Black To The Future: Broad Channel 2098.” The three men also threw pieces of fried chicken and watermelon slices to the crowd.
As the float rode through the mostly-white community along a 10-mile stretch on Cross Bay Boulevard, it was filmed by an amateur videographer and first aired on Channel 2, which reported that the incident was not the first time a racist float had appeared in the Broad Channel parade.
Many civil rights organizations were deeply offended by the display and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani labeled the performance “a disgraceful show of racism and intolerance.”
Giuliani also urged that any city employees involved should be immediately fired. Later, he added that the only way the three men would get their jobs back would be if “the Supreme Court of the United States ordered us to take them back.”
The trial, which began on Tuesday, came about because former Firefighters Jonathan Walters and Robert Steiner and Police Officer Joseph Locurto, believe that they were unfairly dismissed, claiming that their firing, directed by Giuliani, was a heat-of-the-moment decision and had nothing to do with any on-the-job problems.
“Our dispute here is not about the law but about the facts,” said Locurto’s attorney, Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “If this were a case in which the city had fired the police officer because he had become disruptive on the job or was not performing well, then it would be a different story. But this had nothing to do with job performance.”
The city claims, however, that it had every right to fire the three employees because, although they are entitled to free speech, that speech is limited if it could impede job performance in any way. This incident could have negatively influenced interaction between the three men and the communities they served.
“We believe the city’s position in this case is very strong, particularly in light of a recent decision from the Second Circuit federal appeals court that emphatically affirmed the firing of a police officer for engaging in similarly hateful racist and anti-Semitic speech,” said Jonathan Pines, deputy chief of General Litigation for the New York City Law Department.
But, according to Dunn, the firings were a clear example of a mayor who was trying to save face in the wake of a high-profile, racially-charged event. “If you look at the history, Giuliani did not exactly have a strong record on race relations,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, he takes such a strong stance. I think we have a very good case.”
The city’s take is that the mayor’s ultimate decision to fire the employees was based on deeper issues.
“The parade float was a vulgar display and an appalling example of racism,” Pines said. “It threatened to compromise the substantial efforts at community outreach that the Fire Department was undertaking to diversify a force that was 94 percent white at that time. Moreover, it posed a real harm to the Police and Fire Department’s relationship with minority communities throughout the city. In light of these facts…the city’s response was entirely appropriate.”
The Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department, which sponsored the 1998 parade, is aware that the trial is taking place, but declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the NYC Human Rights Commission, which first conducted the investigation into the three employees, also declined to offer an opinion, saying only that the incident took place while another administration was in control and that it would not be appropriate to comment on the matter.
Giuliani, along with former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and former Police Commissioner Howard Safir, are all expected to testify at the trial in Manhattan Federal Court.