The Opa-locka Three

On any other day, these black firefighters' comments on the flag might have gone unnoticed

The news, coming as it did just days after the terrorist attacks on the United States, outraged the nation: Three Miami-Dade County firefighters -- Muslims -- refused, because of their political beliefs, to fly the flag of the United States on their fire truck.

This item was first aired on a local television station one week after the attacks. With officials promising "tough disciplinary action," the three men were relieved of duty with pay indefinitely, partly for their own safety, as death threats and insults poured in by phone and the Internet. Some vengeance-seekers converged on Station 26 in Opa-locka, where the firefighters had been working when they took the flag off their truck. In the following days, this curious bit of dissonance in the nationwide harmony made news everywhere. After the storied heroism and sacrifice of the New York firefighters at the World Trade Center, it was almost unbelievable that these Miami "Muslims" could so shame their profession.

But everyone believed it anyway. Today the fire department veterans, with a combined 46 years of service, have doubts about returning to work; worse, they say, their wives and children have become anxious and fearful, and their neighbors avoid them. After all, William Clark, James Moore, and Terry Williams are only human beings -- who now find themselves transformed into symbols. They are grating reminders of the flawed, deficient, and defiant segments of society that existed long before September 11 and will not vanish, no matter how much the majority proclaims: America, at all costs, must not appear weak, divided, or in any way less than Number One.

By now most South Floridians are at least vaguely aware that the facts first reported about the men were almost all false. They aren't Muslims, and they didn't refuse to go on calls; they did remove a flag from a truck, but that was two days before flags were required on all fire vehicles. The media have dropped the story and e-messages have slowed, but issues remain unresolved, including the job status of the three. The fire department, now investigating the matter, has yet to clarify or refute any of the information it originally released. Fire Chief R. David Paulison has ordered all FD personnel not to comment, and even Public Information Officer Lt. Louie Fernandez, when asked how he first learned of the incident, said: "That's a part of the investigation I can't comment on." The department has, however, made public several written statements by the main characters in the drama.

The picture that emerges is complex, ambivalent, and piques controversies the nation has always struggled with -- issues of constitutional rights and racial differences particularly roiling in Miami.

But one aspect of the scenario is perfectly clear: An honest difference of opinion was crassly manipulated by someone within the FD, then cynically distorted and blown out of proportion by broadcast media. The irresponsible handling of this incident, which would never have acquired such emotional power except for the horrors of September 11, has already needlessly damaged the reputations and careers of three men.

On Tuesday, September 18, WSVN-TV (Channel 7) broadcast the news that two local firefighters had that past Saturday (September 15) removed a large flag mounted on a ladder truck. "We understand two individuals are unhappy that all our fire trucks are flying the American flag," confirmed Lieutenant Fernandez, "and are choosing not to ride on the truck that flies the American flag." (The first leaks apparently named only two -- Moore and Williams -- because they are Station 26 regulars; Clark was on a special overtime shift at that station.) While Fernandez won't say from whom he heard the charges, it's clear from all concerned parties that he had not consulted either the nonconforming firefighters or the two ranking officers at Station 26, Capt. Phil DiMaria and Lt. Michael Simon.

The refusal to ride a flag-draped truck, explained Channel 7 reporter Juan Carlos Fanjul, was "a direct violation of [Chief Paulison's] orders." Fanjul neglected to say that it hadn't been until two days after the alleged incident (September 17) that Paulison decreed all department vehicles must display the flag. Fanjul also threw in an unattributed description of the two rebels: "Both are Muslims." No mention of their race, though it would soon become evident they were African American. Fanjul went on to include disapproving comments from "flabbergasted" firefighters at a different station who had no direct knowledge of what had transpired that Saturday at #26.

It is true that the shift driver, James Moore, removed a large flag from his truck; Moore asserts the flag obstructed his view and covered the ladder controls so as to impede rotation of the aerial. He doesn't mind adding that he wasn't inclined to fly the flag in any case because he, like the other two black firefighters on duty, simply doesn't regard it as a symbol of equality and justice. None is Muslim. All are known throughout the department to be outspoken on the subject of racism in general and within the firefighting establishment specifically. Many of their peers consider them too radical, but they frequently speak their minds even when they know they're not going to change anyone else's. This has made them unpopular with some of the almost 1800 majority white and Hispanic members of the FD. On the Saturday in question, by all accounts, Moore's removal of the flag was questioned by DiMaria and Simon, who weren't happy with his stance. An hourlong discussion ensued, and the two officers agreed not to remount the flag for the remainder of the shift. Later other officers learned of the flag refusal, and complaints reached top brass. On Friday the 17th, Paulison issued his mandatory flag order. By then Moore and Williams had scheduled two-week vacations.

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