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What about whataboutism? The hole in the defense of racists working in public safety

FDNY & NYPD dealt decisively with this issue 20-years-ago and won

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Previously – News report: Virginia investigating white supremacist EMT 

The whatabout age continues. There’s no escaping it. You’d think we could all just agree an EMT publicly supporting the teachings of a guy who killed six-million people on the very same forums where he talks about his EMS work and raises money for the rescue squad that employs him is just something that shouldn’t be okay. Am I wrong to think that, in simpler times, it might have been possible to get 85 to 90 percent of us to agree an out-of-the-closet neo-Nazi or white supremacist in public safety is a bad thing that needs to stop?

The whatabout age is clearly not a simpler time. It’s pretty damn complicated right now. It’s so complicated there are a lot of people who don’t even bother to first say the neo-Nazi guy’s ideas are abhorrent before launching into their whatabout rant. We are now programmed to avoid the issue at hand and to automatically take a defensive posture, even though no one is personally accusing us of anything. Over the last couple of days I’ve read, “What about Antifa?”, “What about Black Panthers?”, “What about Muslims?”, “What about other religions?” and so on. We’re so screwed up we can no longer just simply say there’s no place for Hitler’s ideology in EMS … period.

Most of the whataboutists point out Alex McNabb committed no crime so he gets to keep his job. Good for Alex. I suddenly feel all warm and fuzzy inside about him.

Alex McNabb is an EMT from Patrick County, Virginia employed by Jeb Stuart Rescue Squad. McNabb is described in news coverage as a neo-Nazi, racist and white supremacist. A Huffington Post article by Christopher Mathias, published online Saturday, says McNabb is cohost of a podcast called “The Daily Shoah” and administers the Facebook page “The Final Solution to the Optics Problem.” “Shoah” is the Hebrew word for Holocaust. “The Final Solution” was the Nazi’s plan to exterminate Jews. McNabb simply describes himself as “pro-white”.

For those jumping through hoops to normalize the concept of a neo-Nazi EMT, try these two whatabouts on for size:

  • What about an EMT who has never been charged with harming a child who has a podcast dedicated to the concept of adults having sex with children?
  • What about a firefighter who has never been charged with arson who has a website talking about how cool house fires are and he would like to see more of them?

Does anyone think either of these hypothetical characters would or should be able to keep their jobs? Would you immediately jump to the defense of these two and justify their employment in public safety? If not, then why would you think it’s okay to have someone in EMS who openly preaches an ideology that was responsible for the Holocaust?

Many of the whataboutists cloak themselves in the Constitution, offering a big “What about the First Amendment?” These people believe 1A allows them to say whatever they want–especially while off-duty–without consequences. They often explain this country was much better back when 1A meant something and you could speak your mind about anything without repercussions. My reply usually goes something like, “When you were growing up, if your dad had told the local newspaper or TV station his boss was an awful person, how long would he have stayed employed?”

I’m a big 1A supporter. The First Amendment allowed me to do my job as a reporter and gives me the opportunity to write and publish this post. It also lets EMT Alex McNabb co-host “The Daily Shoah” and talk about pro-white things on social media. What the First Amendment doesn’t do is guarantee employment for McNabb, me or anyone else. How do I know? Because 20-years-ago two FDNY firefighters and an NYPD police officer tested this concept and lost.

1998 parade float from CBS, via Firehouse.com

It was September 7, 1998 when the three were on a day off riding a float in an annual neighborhood Labor Day parade. Sounds like some good, clean fun. But the float was called ““Black to the Future-Broad Channel 2098”. Here’s how the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit described the float and the actions of the three city workers:

Each of the float participants, including the plaintiffs, covered their faces in black lipstick, donned Afro wigs, and accompanied the float along the procession in attire ranging from overalls with no T-shirt underneath, to cut-off jeans and ratty T-shirts, to athletic pants and sweatshirts.  The float itself featured two buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken on the hood of a flatbed truck.   One of the participants (not a plaintiff in this case) ate a watermelon and at one point threw the remains into the crowd. The float participants engaged in various chants, including, “No Justice, No Peace,” “This isn’t Johannesburg,” and “We didn’t land on Broad Channel, Broad Channel landed on us.” Plaintiffs Steiner and Walters yelled to the crowd, “Crackers, we’re moving in,” and Walters simulated “break dancing” alongside the float.

Near the end of the procession, and apparently without the others’ knowledge, Walters held onto the truck’s tailgate, pretending to be dragged by the truck, and yelled, “Look what they did to our brother in Texas, we would not allow them here ” The scene was intended to invoke and parodically recreate the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., an African-American man who had been murdered months earlier outside of Jasper, Texas after being chained to the back of a moving pickup truck by three white men.

This case is known as LOCURTO v. GIULIANI. Yes, that Giuliani. In fact, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s initial public comments about wanting to fire those on the float became a key issue in the court proceedings.

It took almost six years for this to wind through the legal system. The attorneys for the trio did–as attorneys tend to do–a lot of legal whatabouts, citing various precedents in an effort to save the jobs of their clients. In the end, the Second Circuit reversed a District Court judge’s ruling, deciding it was constitutionally permissible for the City to fire the two firefighters and a police officer for being a part of the racist float. Yes, they lost their jobs even though they committed no crime and what they did was completely on their own time while off-duty.

Here are some key quotes from that ruling that sure seem applicable if Jeb Stuart Rescue Squad ever decided Alex McNabb was no longer a good fit for its organization:

We nonetheless find that the defendants’ interest in maintaining a relationship of trust between the police and fire departments and the communities they serve outweighed the plaintiffs’ expressive interests in this case. If the NYPD and FDNY have any greater interests than these, they are few.  

The First Amendment does not require a Government employer to sit idly by while its employees insult those they are hired to serve and protect.’

One does, of course, have a First Amendment right not to be terminated from public employment in retaliation for engaging in protected speech. But one’s right to be a police officer or firefighter who publicly ridicules those he is commissioned to protect and serve is far from absolute. Rather, it is tempered by the reasonable judgment of his employer as to the potential disruptive effects of the employee’s conduct on the public mission of the police and fire departments. We find, in this case, that the judgment of the defendants was reasonable, that it was the clear motive for the plaintiffs’ dismissals, and that it outweighed the plaintiffs’ individual First Amendment interests in participating in the “Black to the Future” float.

I’m not a lawyer and none of what I’ve written is legal advice, but keeping LOCURTO v. GIULIANI in mind, here’s my very non-legal advise to all the whataboutisms Alex McNabb’s story birthed. Whether inspired by hate, religion, a political movement, a cult leader or anything else, if you publicly proclaim a view that greatly conflicts with the mission of your organization and the laws that apply to that organization, there’s a decent chance you may not be able to keep your job and 1A may not save your ass. What about that?

(NOTE: Rather than ever just taking my word on legal issues, I always strongly urge you to read FireLawBlog.com by Curt Varone for a professional’s view of the law as it relates to the fire service. Curt is an attorney and firefighter. For the record, Curt’s summation of LOCURTO v. GIULIANI that he shared with me is, “A firefighter’s right to free speech has a limit: it cannot cause actual harm or disruption to the mission and function of the fire department.”)

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