Speech at Brookhaven Fire Department Protest 8/2/20

“I want to acknowledge all of you who came out here today to affirm the idea that there is no home for hate here, specifically that the Confederate flag should have no place on our fire trucks, no place in our fire department drill teams, and that our beloved  first responders, who are here to serve everybody at our moment of greatest needs, should not be defending or making excuses for displaying the Confederate flag in the course of their duties.

So I honor you for standing up to say this, for affirming the fact that there should be No Home for Hate here.

I want to also acknowledge the Brookhaven Fire Department who have put out two public statements apologizing for this display. Just today the Fire Department released a statement saying that they would be undergoing implicit bias training and that the persons most directly involved in this incident will be placed on suspension pending investigation

I commend the department for taking these steps, I really do. But I want to talk about what else needs to happen and why.

About three years ago, we found that the Holbrook Fire Department website had the Confederate flag all over it. The drill Team, had as their icon an image of General Robert. E. Lee holding the Confederate Flag and a Sabre. The website talked about how members of the squad, (folks who are still on the squad today) I might add,  in were handpainting images of the Confederate flag on their drill team helmets. This iconography was proudly displayed as part of the Holbrook Fire Department’s history. 

So about three years ago, we brought this to the Holbrook FD. We reached out to them, asking them what is the relationship between this department and the Confederate Flag? Why is this the icon that they deemed appropriate for their drill team? 

Are you aware, we asked them, that the Confederate Flag was created by the Southern states that broke away from the Union in the 1850s,  primarily over the issue of the enslavement of African people. Let me be clear: this was the flag of people who believeed that the enslavement of folks of African descent, people like me, should be continued and preserved, far into the future.

When the state of South  Carolina seceded in 1860, it explained clearly why it was breaking away from the union.  It did not speak about the tariff, or about states rights. It broke away, under this new flag ,”due to the increasing hostility on the part of non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and the because of the election of a president, Abraham Lincoln, who believed “that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” This, clutching on to slavery, is why the Confederate flag was flown, and what was at the center of the Civil War.

Are you aware, we asked the Holbrook FD, that the Confederate Flag was revived in public life in the 1950s when the civil rights movement began making headway and pressing for an end to Jim Crow in the South?  This flag reappeared in national public life in a big way when President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces and supported anti-lynching bills? This was the time in Missisippi people began waving the Confederate Flag and putting it up — it was a way to signal their oposition to the federal governments efforts to remove racism, racial exclusions and violence from the infrastructure of public life!

We brought this all to Holbrook Fire Department. Why are you flying this flag? When did this come to be the icon of your drill team? Why have other fire departments all throughout Long Island, never said a peep, about this issue. They see the flag flying, they see the helmets, they see the icons, when and why is this Confederate flag a part of fire department culture? We brought this all to them.

We HARDLY. COULD GET. A RESPONSE. 

We were fluffed off, told it was a personnel issue, and a misunderstanding, and the webpage was scrubbed. That was it. And here we are three years later.

So no, at this point, we are not going to accept that this was an isolated incident, an individual error, or a misunderstanding.

There is a relationship between Long Island’s Fire Department drill teams and the Confederate flag. This relationship is well-documented by the Frie Departments thesmelves. So we want to know: what is this about? When did these drill teams take on the Confederate flag as their icon and why? Has anyone from within spoken out about this, if not, why not? This is the investigation we are looking for, not one focused on a lone individual who made a poor choice, but one that dares to be honest about the reality that all is not well. 

No amount of implicit bias training will be sufficient to sidestep this very explicit history where a symbol of hate, of holding on to slavery, of holding on to  Jim Crow, has been been part of the culture of Long Island drill teams.

So before we can accept the apologies and the implicit bias training and the feel good slogans, please, let’s have the truth. What is this about? When we know what this relationship is and has been, we can talk then more honestly and in a more informed way about what type of changes are necessary to heal this breach and set a new course. 

And lastly, I want to talk about why this is not a trivial matter. Because of the kids. I am standing here for all the little girls and boys whose eyes light up with excitement and pride when the fire department trucks roll through. I’;m here for all the little girls and boys who look to the dire department and see heroes, whose first understanding of public service comes from this vision that there are people who sacrifice their time and their safety to help others in their hour of need. We owe it to these chidlren to do better and to demand better.

I’m very sorry this has happened, but now that it has, we have to make sure it never happens again. Let me be clear:  on Long Island, we do not want to see first responders, fire department trucks, flying the Confederate Flag on the street, at their drill team events, or on their webpages. And if there are people who are in these units, who cannot give this flag up, who cannot honor a fallen brother without waving this flag, who believe that this is such a part of their culture that they cannot do without it, those people need to do something else. We have to get to the root of this and decide that all our communities matter, all our children matter, and that right is always right.”

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