A stuffed monkey found last August hanging from a noose inside a St. Paul Fire Department service garage on Energy Park Drive is still under investigation, officials have informed the MSR. Based on the department’s previous responses to racial incidents, Black firefighters are concerned that this occurrence will be “swept under the rug” like similar complaints in the past.
The monkey-in-a-noose incident was not reported until September, claimed St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler. When it was brought to his attention, “I have to admit that I was a bit shocked, because I have not seen that type of behavior in our department,” he said.
“I went out personally to the repair garage the day it was reported [and] ordered that those items be taken down, and ordered an internal investigation on who put it up, why they put it up and what they meant by putting it up,” said Butler.
Butler said he then hired an independent investigator, and in October he received a preliminary report. He added that the investigation should be completed soon.
The St. Paul fire chief said that he also met with several Black firefighters.
“They have mentioned a number of concerns they have about racial treatment or racial issues about the department. We’ve had incidents in the past, and have a history in the past, but I don’t believe it is widespread in our department, nor did I think it was that graphic.”
However, the noose incident has served as a breaking point for most of the 29 Black firefighters in the St. Paul department. They are meeting this week to discuss this incident and other issues that reflect a continuation of the racial insensitivity that has long existed within the department.
Some are convinced that whenever the incident investigation is completed, nothing will be done about it. Speaking to the MSR only on the condition that their true identities would not be disclosed, two longtime Black firefighters we will refer to as “Max” and “Mac” said that past racial incidents have usually been “swept under the rug.”
Many Black firefighters are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation, Max admitted. “There are [just] a few of us, and some of us don’t want to make waves,” he continued. But after learning about the noose, “A lot of them were offended and want us to move on that.”
The noose may have been up for quite a while, Max said. “Workers [at the garage] told us that they have been playing with it, [putting] it on one side of the shop, then stealing it from the other side. I think it is [noteworthy] that no one confronted them [about it]. When I saw it, I was hurt, then angry.”
Retired St. Paul firefighter Nathaniel Khaliq, now the St. Paul NAACP chapter president, vividly remembers similar issues in the past. “Someone carved a noose with a body hanging from it on a chair in a fire station,” Khaliq recalled. “We immediately filed a complaint, but of course they never found out who was responsible. Like many other incidents, usually when they found the responsible party, there wasn’t a whole lot that was done about it.
“I just think the sordid, racist history of the St. Paul Fire Department is something that has been going on for a long, long time,” continued Khaliq. “For the most part, there has been little if any discipline or punitive action taken toward those that were responsible.”
However, he does see officials move quicker in other situations, Khaliq said. “When women came on the department and there were incidents of degrading magazines and other things lying around, they cleaned that up really quick. But for some reason, they don’t have a lot of empathy for African Americans, and that’s why they continue to do those things and brush it off as ‘boys will be boys.’ It is usually the same outcome: Somebody did it, but they didn’t mean anything by it.”
Khaliq, a 17-year St. Paul fireman who retired about six years ago, said that he supports the Black firefighters’ efforts to unify and fight against such conditions. “I think it is important that they are organized, because they certainly can’t count on the union, and the only other course of action is the courts.”
MSR tried contacting Chris Parsons for comment, who is secretary and a high-ranking Black member of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21. After several attempts, we were still unable to reach Parsons by our press deadline. Our calls to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman were not returned.
The two Twin Cities fire departments are worlds apart with regard to diversity, Khaliq said. “When you compare [Minneapolis] to St. Paul, it is an outright disgrace,” he noted.
There are around 460 firefighters in Minneapolis, of whom 60-65 are Black. In St. Paul there are 410 firefighters, of whom 29 are Black and 16 are female.
“Minneapolis is not perfect,” said Jay Wells, a Minneapolis firefighter for almost 14 years. “We have our own issues, but we don’t [have] those ills.
“We have an African American chief, an African American fire marshal, [and] a female African American assistant chief,” said Wells. “They didn’t get their positions because they are African American or female — they got their positions because they were qualified. They earned the right to have the job[s] they have now.”
Wells and other Minneapolis Black firefighters met with their St. Paul brethren shortly after the noose incident was reported. “The brothers in St. Paul are almost like they are in a time warp. They are dealing with issues that Minneapolis may have dealt and did deal with in the 1970s,” said Wells.
The St. Paul Black firefighters are part of “a silent majority of all firefighters, White and Black, that don’t want that mess going on,” Wells surmised. “There are White firefighters in St. Paul who agree with the Black firefighters, but they [don’t] speak out on it.”
“I have been working with the city attorney to look into the previous racial history in our department,” Chief Butler told us. “I’ve made a commitment that this would stop. It has no place in the workplace.”
Butler said he wants to meet with the department’s Black firefighters. “I already volunteered to sit down with them and have them be inherently involved in the decision-making process on how to fix these problems. It is a priority of mine.”
“We are trying to give the new chief the benefit of the doubt that he is going to do the right thing,” said Khaliq. “We have to wait and see.”
“We want to come to work,” said Black firefighters Max and Mac, “and not be in a hostile work environment.”
St. Paul’s Black firefighters say that their concerns in the department go far beyond the monkey-in-a-noose incident. Watch the MSR for continued coverage of these concerns.
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