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Houston Black firefighters continue to fight the flames of racism

By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer | Last updated: Jul 16, 2009 - 9:04:01 PM

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Long-time activist Sister Dember speaks during the press conference on June 23 at Houston City Hall. She is surrounded by (l-r) Shelby Stewart, Attorney Warren Muhammad, HBFFA President Otis Jordan and Deric Muhammad.
HOUSTON ( - Members of the Houston Black Firefighters Association (HBFFA) are refusing to back down from their demands to have three of the department's top administrators fired for mishandling the discovery of a hangman's noose in a White captain's locker earlier this year.

Thousands are preparing to converge again on the steps of City Hall on July 28 for what is now known as the Flames of Racism protest and rally.

“We want them demoted,” said Otis Jordan at a news conference outside City Hall in late June. Mr. Jordan is a fi re captain and is president of HBFFA. “We will not let up until justice is served.”

This was the fourth time in several months that his group along with community activists took their concerns to the City Hall chambers to voice their disgust. They also held a huge town hall meeting at the HBFFA headquarters in the Third Ward area in early June.

The coalition is calling on Houston Mayor Bill White to investigate Fire Chief Phil Boriskie and Assistant Chiefs Rick Flanagan and Omero Longoria for an alleged cover up.

“We are here today in the interest of discrimination,” said Deric Muhammad of the Nation of Islam to press. “We are calling for zero tolerance on racial hatred and racial symbols in the workplace. It must end now.”

In February, a noose was discovered by a Black firefighter in the partially opened locker of Captain Keith Smith. The incident was then reported by two Black firefighters. Mr. Smith was only given a written reprimand for having the noose in his locker and the two Black firefighters received the same punishment for reporting it. But as of late, the noose isn't the only incident plaguing the department.

On July 8, racist statements were picked up over a radio frequency used by local firefighters for the second time in the last few months. This occurred only a few hours after racist and sexist graffiti was discovered on the lockers and personal belongings of a Black and White female firefighter. This forced Mayor White, whose term ends this year, to finally make a statement.

“I want some independent group that has legal expertise to come in here and advice us on what to do,” said the Mayor in a press conference July 9. “The acts of a few do not represent the vast majority of the good men and women who serve in the Houston Fire Department.”

Mr. Muhammad and the group have drummed up support from many city council members, grassroots groups, and political candidates who are all calling on more from the Mayor.

“After months of urging from community members, firefighters and police officers to address these issues, finally the Mayor has been forced to provide a response which is less than adequate,” said Kofi Taharka of the National Black United Front.

“Mayor White has shown a severe lack of leadership in his timid response to the multiple White supremacist, racist and sexist incidents publicly exposed at the Houston Fire Department,” Mr. Taharka told The Final Call.

“An isolated incident is one isolated incident, but when an isolated incident becomes a pattern, you may have a serious problem in the department,” said Councilman Jarvis Johnson told The Final Call.

Councilmember Johnson, who oversees District B, has proposed a city-wide zero tolerance policy on racism. “We must institute zero tolerance regarding racial symbols, slurs and gestures,” he said.

Along with agreeing with the zero tolerance policy, Councilwoman Jolanda Jones also sent a letter directly to the U.S. Department of Justice to request them to “come in and decide for themselves if there's a real problem here.”

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Mayoral candidate Gene Locke said “I strongly support the men and women of the Houston Fire Department and the recent events are in no way a reflection on these great public servants who risk their lives for us every day. However, these cowardly acts by a few reckless individuals are deplorable and cannot be tolerated.”

“Racism in this department has been going on for years,” 27-yearveteran Marty Harvey told The Final Call. “Blacks are still treated standoffish. But the Blacks inside can no longer be afraid to speak out. There is nothing to be afraid of.”