A Black Fire Department of New York firefighter alleges he was punished this year for going public with his claims of racism in the FDNY, acts that extended to being ordered to use a fire hose on George Floyd protesters last year.
Omar Wilks, 41, claims in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Brooklyn on Aug. 23 that he opposed his boss’s May 2020 order to use the tactic reminiscent on the Civil Rights era.
The lawsuit, obtained by Atlanta Black Star, names the city of New York as a defendant and says not only did Wilks refuse that order, his continued outspokenness about racial discrimination and inequality within the department caused the retaliation he was subjected to.
The suit claims Wilks’ right to free speech was violated and names the FDNY commissioner and five other officials as defendants.
According to the suit, after George Floyd’s death, Wilks and other firefighters were directed to use water hoses to control protesters. Wilks objected, insisting the order not be followed. He said he would not use a hose to control protesters and would prevent other firefighters from doing so.
After Wilks, a 13-year veteran of the department, escalated the matter, the order to use water hoses was banned and they were not used on demonstrators, he claims.
Wilks, who also is an ordained minister, has sent several letters to local elected officials this year, detailing the discriminatory practices and hostile racial environment inside the FDNY.
In the correspondences, Wilks said that defendant and FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro engaged in discriminatory hiring practices and permitted racism within the department.
He demanded an immediate change be made to EEO leadership and complained that no action had been taken against the superior who ordered fire hoses be used to control protesters.
Following the communications, Wilks says he was called to the FDNY headquarters by defendants Richardson, Brown, Shaaf, Morkal and Velez, “where he was admonished for his free speech and threatened with retaliation, including but not limited to, suspension and removal from the firehouse.”
The legal claim alleges the other defendants say it was Nigro who was unhappy about the communications and wanted action to be taken against Wilks.
“These Defendants sought to muzzle Plaintiff and inhibit his speech. They also retaliated against him for his speech, in concert with, and at the behest of, Defendant Nigro,” the document reads.
After Wilks protested outside of FDNY headquarters, he was suspended for 30 days. The suit says, “These Defendants worked collectively to manufacture false claims against Plaintiff in order to justify the unlawful violation of his rights and retaliate against him for speaking publicly regarding the discrimination and unlawful acts at the FDNY.”
The defendants falsely said that Wilks had been AWOL to help justify the suspension, the suit says.
While suspended Wilks did not earn a salary. Afterward Wilks was reassigned to a position with a lower salary and status, the suit says. The defendants also allegedly forced Wilks to attend unnecessary counseling and psychological evaluations.
The suit says, “by requiring counseling where none is needed, the Defendant’s sought to paint the Plaintiff as unstable, psychologically unfit to be a firefighter, and tarnish his image and reputation.”
The suit seeks compensatory, consequential, and special damages, punitive damages, and damages for emotional distress, lost wages, back pay, front pay, statutory damages.
The FDNY deferred questions to the Law Department, where officials say the court proceedings about the allegations will have to play out before a spokesperson comments on the situation.
“Firefighter Wilks was unlawfully punished for seeking to change the culture of discrimination at the FDNY,” his attorney, Aymen Aboushi, said last week. “We will continue to fight for equality and ensure that the FDNY no longer retaliates against its members who do the same.”