The tempers of three Cleveland firefighters working outside a fire on East 93rd Street this summer were nearly as hot as the blaze that raged inside the building.
Two lieutenants—one white, one black—argued over who was giving orders at the scene. Lt. George Greer, who is white, swore at firefighter Asa Newsome, who is black. Newsome threatened Greer. Lt. Anthony Luke, who is black, pushed Greer aside when Greer tried to handle a ladder from Luke’s truck.
All three firefighters were suspended. City official Tony Washington investigated that flap and was blunt in his assessment.
“There is a high level of racial tension between African-American and Caucasian firefighters within the Division of Fire, which is in part related to a pending lawsuit,” Washington wrote in an August memo.
That controversial lawsuit was filed three years ago by 35 black firefighters, including Luke and Newsome. It is scheduled to go to trial this month.
In a city where 52 percent of the people are black, nearly 75 percent of the Fire Department is white. While Paul Stubbs became the department’s first black chief last year, blacks make up just 8 percent of the ranks between assistant chief and lieutenant.
What’s more, black firefighters claim they are disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts. For example, black firefighters accounted for nearly 53 percent of all the formal disciplinary sanctions handed out by the department from 1997 through 2000.
Other allegations portray two departments—one white, one black—where black-owned homes are unnecessarily gutted by fires while extra care is taken in homes in white neighborhoods; pensions are padded by steering overtime to firefighters about to retire; and a network of white firefighters—mainly Irish Catholics from the West Side—take care of each other at the expense of other firefighters.
Racial tensions—and lawsuits dealing with them—are nothing new to the department. Hiring has been governed for nearly three decades by the Headen consent decree—a federal court-approved settlement that has boosted the ratio of black firefighters from 4 percent in 1967 to 21 percent this year. The decree was reached in 1973 after several black men who wanted to be firefighters sued the city, saying they were denied work because of their race.
Because of a 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off schedule, Cleveland firefighters end up working, eating and sleeping under the same roof every third day.
For the most part, firefighters are able to choose where they work, and that has led to self-segregation by both white and black firefighters. At least half of the city’s fire stations are staffed overwhelmingly by one racial group.
For more than a decade, promotions in the department were dictated by another court-approved settlement, reached in 1983, as the result of a lawsuit filed by black firefighters. But that settlement expired in 1995, and since then, the firefighters getting promoted have been overwhelmingly white.
Promotions are another example of how the two groups can look at the same situation and come to totally different conclusions.
The black firefighters see the lack of promotions as proof that the test is biased and the department is controlled by a network of white friends.
White firefighters look at the results and see it as proof that they study harder and longer for the promotional test. The lawsuit, in their eyes, is just another example of black firefighters trying to use litigation instead of hard work to get ahead.
An unsigned letter under the headline “The Emerald Dispatch” was recently circulated around some fire stations. It read:
“We are faced with a group of self-serving individuals who are trying to bypass the time and hard work required to advance in this department by using the courts and political processes. . . Once again these individuals are using race as their battering ram to forward their agenda.”