NJ firefighters suffered years of racism from chief, colleagues, suit alleges

Two African-American firefighters claimed other firefighters made jokes about police brutality, used the N-word and referred to one as an "ape"


Jenna Wise
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

Two former Linden firefighters are suing the city for years’ worth of racist and threatening behavior from their peers and a now-retired chief, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Joseph Braxton and Mark Bullock allege that for at least two years when they worked for the Linden Fire Department, the color of their skin was a continual punchline to racist jokes, and caused them to receive fewer opportunities than other firefighters. They filed the suit in Superior Court of Union County.

Former Linden firefighters Joseph Braxton and Mark Bullock, standing on either side of Rev. Barry Wise, center, accuse their former Linden Fire Department colleagues and fire chief of racial discrimination in a lawsuit filed Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo/Jenna Wise, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
Former Linden firefighters Joseph Braxton and Mark Bullock, standing on either side of Rev. Barry Wise, center, accuse their former Linden Fire Department colleagues and fire chief of racial discrimination in a lawsuit filed Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo/Jenna Wise, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

On multiple occasions, the suit said, Linden firefighters made offensive jokes about African-Americans — including references to watermelon, police beating a black man to death and referring to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as “Colin Cancer."

The discrimination got worse when Joseph Dooley was hired as fire chief in 2017, the suit says.

“Over the years these jokes were heard a few times a year,” the suit said. “However, beginning in 2017 racial comments and jokes [became] almost a daily event.”

Bullock said he heard Dooley and another firefighter use the N-word, and was once referred to as a “strong ape.”

Both men also said they were denied training opportunities that would’ve allowed them to pursue other career opportunities in the department.

Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said he had a conversation with Dooley several months ago that led to his retirement at the end of September. The mayor didn’t specifically confirm racism in the department, but said he’s working with the new fire chief to make some changes.

Dooley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I realize that issues have occurred not only in the fire department but the city as a whole. My administration continues to address these issues,” Armstead said in a statement. “I am confident that we will be successful in making Linden more fair and equitable for everyone.”

Braxton and Bullock were hired in 2001 and 2006, respectively.

Their attorney, Gregg Zeff, said the department isn’t diverse, and that they are two of the few black firefighters who have been hired over the last decade.

When they tried taking their concerns to Dooley and city officials, the men said they were met with hostility and threats of their jobs being terminated if they moved forward.

Braxton and Bullock “have suffered and will continue to suffer severe harm” because of their workplace treatment, the suit says.

Zeff said Braxton and Bullock were forced to quit their jobs because of the mental toll caused by the harassment.

“When my clients went to all the powers that be to exhaust their remedies, not only were they told nothing could be done, they were told to shut their mouths or something would be done to them."

Braxton and Bullock are seeking damages, attorney fees, front and back pay, restoration of benefits and reinstatement at the fire department.

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©2019 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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