Black FDNY firefighter files harassment, discrimination lawsuit

Jason Johnson says he was forced to do demeaning drills and berated with homophobic taunts, forcing him out of an elite unit

By Stephen Rex Brown
New York Daily News 

NEW YORK — A black FDNY firefighter says he was forced to do demeaning drills and berated with homophobic taunts, forcing him out of an elite unit.

Jason Johnson, 40, joined the FDNY in 2006 and moved to the agency’s coveted Special Operations Command in 2016 on a contingent basis. He says in his Manhattan Federal Court suit that he was one of only two black firefighters in all of the Special Operations Command companies in Manhattan – and was ostracized from the start.

“Johnson was singled out to perform drills that were out of line with department norms, that put him on display to be ridiculed by his peers and commanding officers, and that were humiliating,” his suit says.

In August of that year he conducted a rescue drill in the Hudson River. But in a breach of protocol, fellow smoke eaters didn’t back him up and made demeaning comments about him as he did the drill. The members of his company then allegedly mocked him in in the firehouse and on social media.

“Black guys really don’t do well in water,” one firefighter loudly said, according to the suit.

The racist trash-talk continued in a group chat used by the unit and shared photos taken during the drill there, the suit says.

“Look at the black in the water,” and “See how out of place he looks?” his colleagues allegedly wrote.

The suit is another example of the racial tensions at the FDNY. In 2014 the city settled a lawsuit over the department’s discriminatory hiring practices for $98 million. In May, a City Councilwoman slammed the FDNY for “systemic racism.”

In his suit, Johnson says that by the summer of 2016, members of the unit were ganging up on him because they believed he was gay.

Firefighters taunted him after he arrived to the firehouse jogging or on bicycle, he says.

“Did you run through West Village to say hi to your gay friends?” they allegedly said.

His colleagues allegedly made homophobic comments about his Facebook profile in their group chat, the suit says. One sent him a cruel image of fitness guru Richard Simmons, according to the court papers.

In June 2016, the taunting took a darker turn when firefighter Jason Ribisi allegedly grabbed Johnson’s crotch while they were in a firetruck. Seeking to return the favor and make Ribisi uncomfortable, Johnson kissed Ribisi, according to the suit.

Johnson says he endured sexual abuse as a child and that the episode was deeply traumatic.

In March 2017, he was moved out of the elite unit dedicated to complex firefighting operations.

“My guys don’t feel comfortable with you,” Captain Brian Smith told him, according to the suit.

The conversation concluded with the supervisor telling Johnson, “get out of my firehouse,” the papers say.

The FDNY and Ribisi declined comment. A Law Department spokesman said the suit would be reviewed.

Johnson seeks a court order reinstating him to the Special Operations division, as well as damages to be determined at trial.

Copyright 2018 New York Daily News 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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