A group of black D.C. firefighters, voicing support for Mayor Marion Barry and Fire Chief Norman Richardson, said yesterday that charges made recently by white officials alleging reverse discrimination in departmental promotion policies are a product of "racism."
Thought Lt. Ray Alfred, speaking for the group, said his statements were not indicative of a black-white split in the 1,400-member fire department, they did appear to draw racial lines even deeper in an ongoing dispute over departmental promotion practices.
Yesterday's press conference, held by 18 black firefighters in the District Building, follows several months of increasingly heated and emotional debate.
Last week, the controversy came to a head when one of the most vocal white battalion chiefs, Bill Phillips, was put on administrative leave and assigned to a desk position after he participated in an anti-Barry protest at the District Building and then lambasted the fire department's promotion system in newspaper and radio interviews.
On Monday it was learned that 12 high-ranking white fire officials had filed retirement papers and will be leaving the department Aug. 31.
Battalion Chief Kenneth Elmore, president of the department's Chief Officer's Association, was quoted as saying that the officials are quitting because "they have made it clear to us (white officers) that promotions won't be coming our way, that a white man has no future in the department."
Alfred, who said he was speaking for the 420 black firefighters in the department, said yesterday that white firefighters' claims that "a white man has no future in this department" were mistaken.
"It is we who should be worried about our future in the fire department," said Alfred. He noted that only one of the department's 33 battalion chiefs and three of its six deputy chiefs are black, and that the department, as a whole, is 68 percent white.
"The system of promotion above the rank of battalion chief has always been at the discretion of the fire chief," said Alfred. "This system was not created by chief Richardson but by white fire chiefs before him . . . However, now that qualified blacks are part of the system, and now in a few cases, were promoted ahead of some white chief officers, the system is suddenly no good and needs to be changed."
The reason for white officials' charges, Alfred said, is "quite simple -- racism."
Bill Hoyle, president of Local 36 of the Fire Fighters Association, said he had not been invited to the press conference, but "I hate to see (the blacks) making these statements. This just adds more fuel to the racial problems we already have."
Neither Mayor Barry nor Chief Richardson was available for comment yesterday.
Alfred, a 17-year veteran of the department, said black firefighters realized the mayor's appointment of Chief Richardson "was not a popular one. However, the mayor is the mayor, and as mayor is given that authority . . . We resent the efforts of any group of individuals who neither lives in nor contributes financially to this city, to criticize the administration on its management of the city's budget."
Fire Department figures show that about 80 percent of black firefighters live in the District of Columbia, while about 8 percent of the whites do.
Alfred also charged that since Local 36 "has continually violated their contractual agreement with the city" by not representing fully the needs of its black members, it is time the mayor "very carefully considered revoking the union's agreement with the city.
"We were hoping this problem would go away," Alfred said, "but we were forced to hold this press conference because the white battalion chiefs refused to listen to reason behind the scenes" in private talks with black firefighters.