Nine New York City firefighters have been suspended without pay for their involvement in a series of racist messages and memes shared by cellphone in what many officials are calling the “most severe discipline ever handed down in the history of the department.”
The organization is rarely known to terminate or suspend its employees for long periods of time. However, nine firefighters, who were not identified, were quietly relieved of their duties for periods ranging from a few days to six months, The New York Times reported last week.
The department commissioner, Daniel Nigro, told the outlet that one of the firefighters is expected to exit the department entirely following the completion of his suspension.
“When the abhorrent meme/texts were reported to the Department, FDNY’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials and the EEO office immediately began investigations. Members involved were suspended,” an FDNY spokesperson told Insider in a statement.
Content shared included memes mocking the death of George Floyd, whose caught-on-video death on Memorial Day 2020 after Minneapolis cop Derek Chavin knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes was a match that lit a fire of protests for social justice around the nation.
The offensive content was discovered in April when someone leaked the group text message thread to some Black firefighters who — for obvious reasons — had not been included in the group.
The newly added African-American group got a look at the thread that included memes like the “Sesame Street” character Ernie getting a job as a cop and refusing a salary because “being able to legally shoot Black children is payment enough.”
Another meme was of fake a dating profile for George Floyd that gave his match as a white man’s knee.
The group chat, which also included bigoted discussions such as someone comparing Black people to animals and a response that “wild animals behave better,” was dissolved about the 30 minutes after the Black firefighters were added to the thread, but news of the secret clique and its racism made its way to FDNY senior command, launching the investigation.
The disciplinary actions for the group chat came after several Black firefighters came forward with complaints about the unfair and discriminatory treatment they’ve endured at work. Black firefighter Omar Wilks filed a lawsuit against the department and the commissioner last August.
Wilks claimed he was retaliated against for refusing to obey the May 2020 orders to use firehoses on people protesting in the name of Floyd. (FDNY would later admit to the Times that three white lieutenants in the department did suggest using hoses on protesters last year.)
Wilks said he was also punished for his continued outspokenness against alleged racism in the department. The suit claims Wilks’ right to free speech was violated and named the FDNY commissioner and five other officials as defendants.
Another complaint came from former Black firefighter Kareem Charles, who told the Times in an interview that he was called “Kool Aid” by other firefighters in the academy.
The outlet reported that the FDNY, noted for being the largest fire department in the country with more than 11,000 members, has a long history of racist behavior but has seemingly managed to stay under the radar.
FDNY has a substantially higher percentage of white employees than its NYPD counterpart: 75 percent of firefighters in New York are white, compared to 47 percent of police officers.
That figure for white FDNY personnel is a decline from 93 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, only 8.2 percent of current firefighters are Black, 13.4 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Asian, according to a statement provided to Insider by the department.