Jun 17, 2020

Standing Against Injustice With the Communities We Serve

In solidarity with the communities we serve: Black Lives Matter

For 30 years, I swore an oath to serve and protect my community as a firefighter in the Sacramento region. I took the words in that oath seriously.

I worked alongside hundreds of law enforcement officers and have had good relationships with them. I know, however, that my experience does not reflect the experience of many others, especially Black men and women.

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers was an assault on the sanctity of human life. Any public safety officer who can justify this heinous crime, is someone I could never serve with on the line. Our duty is to protect and save lives, not take them.

In the wake of Mr. Floyd’s needless death, and the events that followed, I have reflected on my own reactions to similar incidents in the past. I am not proud of my silence. It is clear to me that I’ve never fully listened to the experiences of my Black brothers and sisters, either at the firehouse or in the communities I have served.

The demonstrations resulting from Mr. Floyd’s death and many others, like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, a young EMT on the front lines, is a response to a problem our society has ignored for too long.

Racism is a sickness to which no individual or institution can claim immunity. I know that I carry my own implicit biases but it’s not enough to simply acknowledge them, I have to challenge them. Societal change starts with us as individuals.

As a firefighter and a union leader I have always believed in “the fire family.” We live together, entrust each other with our lives and bring our own families into the culture. Being a family does not end when the shift ends. I want our Black brothers and sisters to know that I see you. I understand that the realities you and your families face in this country are uniquely different and I know I need to do better.

As a labor president I have an obligation to stand up against racism. For many of our members, it is, manifestly, a workplace issue. Simply put, our Black firefighters are treated differently by the public. We can look at Oakland Hills where a Black firefighter, in full uniform, was reported to the police while conducting routine vegetation inspections because he looked “suspicious.” White firefighters who have conducted that same inspection in that area were never reported to the police.

It would be dishonest to say that our Black members and many of our members of color have never experienced racism in the firehouse. For as long as I’ve been in the service, we have had our own struggles with it as a profession. I believe it is better than it was 30 years ago, but that does not mean we let our foot off the gas. We need to continue to make progress, have those uncomfortable kitchen table conversations and stand with our Black brothers and sisters, not only on the line but in the communities we serve.

Part of that progress includes doing a better job of making our profession look more like the communities we serve. The lack of diversity in the fire service is long standing and well-documented. But I believe a more representative profession makes for better service by us and safer communities for those we serve. When a station reflects its community, there is a better chance for understanding, cooperation and openness.

As firefighters, we are an integrated and active part of the communities we serve. Our oath is to serve and protect, but that’s not limited to fire or disaster only. I believe it includes responding to the profound pain inflicted by the plague of racism. This pain permeates throughout our communities and affects the daily lives of the people we serve. How can we claim to be part of a community but ignore the pain of injustice?

We have an obligation to tell the people we serve that we stand with them. That Black Lives Matter. So they know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they can always count on their firefighters.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I, for one, am done being silent. I won’t stand by as a leader of my union. I won’t stand down as a human being.

I can’t pretend to know the right way or the wrong way forward. What I do know is that we must have our eyes and ears open, face our own biases and, above all, listen to our Black brothers and sisters, in our ranks and in the communities we serve.

Only then can we begin to build a better way forward … together.  

Brian K. Rice, President, California Professional Firefighters