Winston-Salem fire Engineer Thomas Penn speaks at a press conference on Monday evening. (photo by Jordan Green)
Black firefighters in Winston-Salem say they endure nooses tied by white colleagues, racially charged social media and other harassment.
A gorilla mask left on newly promoted Black officer’s desk. Firefighters tying nooses during trainings. Frequent use of the N-word through station houses across the city. Racially charged social media posts.
A group of Black firefighters known as Omnibus said racism is rampant throughout the Winston-Salem Fire Department during a Monday evening press conference in a parking lot adjacent to Fire Station 1 on North Marshall Street, where they were joined by some 90 supporters, including many who have marched for Black lives over the past seven weeks.
“Ours is a paramilitary organization in which we train, sleep, eat and risk the most precious gift of all: life,” said Thomas Penn, an engineer with the fire department. “We literally perform one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, which is intensified when discover that we must potentially entrust this gift to another.
“We are eerily aware that some of these individuals possess racist thoughts and ideologies — a fact that adds an unnecessary level of tension and apprehension to an already stressful career,” Penn continued. “We believe the department contains individuals who are intolerant of racism and bigotry. However, within our ranks there exists and age-old subculture that is not only tolerant of racism but openly expresses it.”
Penn charged that Chief Trey Mayo “has failed to hold these individuals accountable for their actions when there are clear regulations in place to address them.
“Subsequently, he has fostered an environment where those that have been the recipients of these hate-filled words and gestures are fearful of reprisal,” Penn continued.
Assistant Chief of Operations Jerry Hardison, who is in charge of fire suppression and communications, told Triad City Beat the fire department has no comment on the Black firefighters’ concerns at this time.
A handful of organizations, including Hate Out of Winston, Emancipate NC and Advance Carolina joined the Black firefighters in demanding an outside investigation of racism and sexual harassment in the department; zero tolerance for violations of the city’s social-media policy; the creation of a fellowship program to recruit from traditionally underserved populations; and mandatory diversity training eight times a year.
Penn said Mayor Allen Joines and members of city council have had Omnibus’ concerns and demands for more than 16 days, and they have yet to receive a response.
Councilman James Taylor, who chairs the public safety committee, said he watched a live video stream of the press conference.
“I heard they were saying nooses were being tied, the use of the N-word,” Taylor said during an interview on Tuesday. “All the specific incidents that have been put to our attention, we will address the persons who committed the offenses and dismiss them. That’s not what we stand for as a community and as a city, and systemic racism will be rooted out.”
Taylor said his comments shouldn’t be interpreted as an attack on the fire department.
“I seriously believe we have one of the best fire departments in the country,” he said. “There may be some bad apples and they will be rooted out. This isn’t against the fire department. I support the fire department.”
Mayor Pro Tem DD Adams said she has suggested to City Manager Lee Garrity that the city hire an outside consultant to investigative the claims raised by the Black firefighters.
“We cannot do this in-house, internally,” she said. “In order for it to be transparent and fair, people have to feel that we did our job.”
Adams also said she would like to see the city invest in training programs to enhance opportunities for Black people interested in careers in firefighting.
“I won’t say a majority, but many of the white firefighters come by way of smaller volunteer fire departments,” she said. “They already have some training; they already know the test. Black firefighters don’t have that luxury. Why wouldn’t we pair with Forsyth Tech and others? If they want the career in firefighting, help them prepare. I don’t think the playing field was ever level.”
Several speakers emphasized that the press conference was not the first step taken by the Black firefighters to address their concerns.
“This press conference is the nuclear option,” said Dawn Blagrove of Emancipate NC, as about a dozen firefighters stood behind her in matching black shirts with red lettering spelling Omnibus. “These men and women would not be here if they could have been heard, if their concerns were addressed through the appropriate systems. But they were not.
“These men and women deserve to work in a place where they are safe, that is not hostile, where they don’t have to worry about putting on their boots to come save your house from burning down and stepping into someone’s spit,” Blagrove continued. “They deserve the dignity of being allowed to do their jobs and protect the people of Winston-Salem with their head held high and their rights respected. So I say to you: Just like you, the people of Winston-Salem, deserve to have a firetruck come to your house when your house is on fire — just like you deserve to have a fireman respond when you need them, now is your obligation to respond when they need you.”
Among the social media posts singled out for reproach by the group, Ikulture Chandler of Hate Out of Winston highlighted an exchange between Capt. Kevin Shore and a firefighter referencing the Confederacy, a faction that waged a treasonous war against the United States for the purpose of maintaining the institution of slavery.
“With this logic I guess anyone with the name Dixie is racist?” Shore said in the post, which Chandler provided to TCB. “Trying to rewrite history will not change it. And those wanting change should do some research on the topic — what they find will change how they view it. Learn from history and be better because of it, not remove or try to erase it. First riots, removal of statues, changing the names of events, there is no end to this.”
“Exactly,” the firefighter responded. “They’re ignorant of their history.”
Chandler characterized the exchange as “ranting about how their false history is legit” and claiming “that we Blacks are ignorant to our history.” She added, “It’s not okay to live in racism over social media.”
Shore could not be reached for comment for this story.
Just before the press conference began, a group of two dozen people who have been active in the Black Lives Matter protests over the past seven weeks marched into the parking lot, chanting, “We stand with Omnibus.”
Some white command officers and firefighters in the department openly expressed scorn for the protesters.
“Why is a department officer — the very officer who created a mandatory review PowerPoint presentation on how to interact with protesters — stat[ing] that he would go through downtown on his way home and run them over?” asked Penn, the fire engineer who spoke on behalf of Omnibus.
“The crowd he was referring to is essentially us,” Penn added. “Those of you individuals who are willing to stand up and make your voice known. You’re willing to sacrifice yourself for change in order to change the moral compass of this country.”
Penn said later that the officer to whom his remarks referenced is Training Capt. Christopher Belcher. A message left for Belcher at the fire department on Tuesday went unreturned.
Scorn for protesters also shows up as a consistent theme on Capt. Michael “Mac” Casstevens Facebook page, which includes dozens of posts since the murder of George Floyd that cast protesters in a negative light.
One meme posted to his page on June 5 says, “If your lives matter so much, why do you stand in the middle of the road?”
On June 20, he shared a meme featuring a photo of the singer Sammy Davis Jr. that says, “Instead of hands up, don’t shoot, how about pull your pants up, don’t loot?”
In another post on Casstevens’ Facebook page, the fire captain shares a tweet by Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh that promotes blatantly a racist stereotypes of Black people who live in areas with racially concentrated poverty. “The average child in the inner city grows up without a father, listens to music that overtly glorifies crime and self-destruction, and lives in a community where murder is a daily occurrence and drug dealers rule the streets,” Walsh wrote. “But yes, his biggest problem is the police. Okay, sure.”
At least two of Casstevens’ posts in the past eight weeks are labeled by Facebook as containing false information, including one that says, “Look at the pain and grief on all their faces as they mourn the tragic loss of George Floyd.” The photo depicts looters in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, who died from injuries sustained while he was being transported in a police vehicle.
On June 11, Casstevens shared a link to the Southern Heritage Preservation Group, a private Facebook group. The cover photo for the page includes a rendering of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee with the text, “Don’t take a knee. Take a stand! Support saving Confederate heritage!” “Take a knee” is widely understood as a reference to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s insistence on kneeling instead of standing for the National Anthem as a protest against police brutality. And after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer who asphyxiated him by placing a knee to his neck, protesters began taking a knee as a way of paying respect to Floyd.
Casstevens could not be reached for comment.
During his remarks at Monday’s press conference, Penn laid responsibility for the racial tension in the fire department at Chief Mayo’s feet. Penn said that during an officers meeting, the chief complained: “I’m tired of hearing about diversity.”
Penn charged: “There are racially charged social media posts and conversation that our coworkers and officers have made and are engaged in. Chief Mayo is aware of these infractions, and has yet to address them in a manner commensurate with the act.”