Opa-locka Three: The Sequel

After the fire, the fire still burns

Less than a week after the horrors of September 11, 2001, three Miami-Dade County firefighters in an Opa-locka station became national pariahs after they reportedly refused to ride on trucks bearing the United States flag. Miami-Dade Fire Department spokesmen at first confirmed accounts of three fire rescue workers who were so radical in their "black Muslim" beliefs that they ripped the flag off a truck, snubbing their noses at the nation and the hundreds of fellow firefighters who'd died in New York and Washington, D.C.

The accounts turned out to be wrong, a fact affirmed by a subsequent fire department investigation. The three black firefighters were not Muslims, and they didn't refuse to ride with the flag. They did, however, voice their strong opinions about racial inequality and race-based discrimination in the U.S., hard opinions they'd been expressing for years and which already had earned them enmity within the confines of the majority-white fire department. Set against the 9/11 tragedy, the firefighters' critical view of U.S. society (and their continued willingness to articulate it) was an unforgivable sin to many. So when one of them did remove a flag from a truck, the act was blown up to blasphemous proportions. In local and national e-mails and telephone messages, the fire rescue veterans -- now known as "the Opa-locka Three" -- were excoriated as traitors, terrorist sympathizers, subhuman, and worse; dozens of their peers made it known they'd never again work with such "scumbags," as one lieutenant's e-mail put it.

The three, hastily put on administrative leave after they became notorious for acts they didn't commit, were directed to return to work in late October 2001. Fire department investigators had concluded William Clark, James Moore, and Terry Williams had not broken any law or disobeyed any order. Now the media was reporting the three had been "cleared." And for most observers, that was the welcome end of an ugly little flareup in the uneasy, messy history of race relations in Miami-Dade.

Even though they had not disobeyed the law or fire department orders, William Clark (left), Terry Williams (middle), and James Moore say they're still the bad guys
Steve Satterwhite
Even though they had not disobeyed the law or fire department orders, William Clark (left), Terry Williams (middle), and James Moore say they're still the bad guys

But the firefighters were not cleared, and as much as county officials would like to have done with it, the matter is far from closed. The fire chief at the time, David Paulison (since moved to Washington as U.S. Fire Administrator), ordered disciplinary action against Clark and Moore, not because they violated the law but because they offended and distressed many of their fellow firefighters by expressing unpopular views during a time of crisis. In other words the two were punished for exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

Meanwhile no official judgment has ever been passed on the dozens of fire department employees who fed lies to the public and threatened and defamed Clark, Moore, and Williams. The department's public information officer at the time, Louie Fernandez, was put in the position of having to "confirm" false information and innuendo for use in broadcast and print reports. "I prefaced everything I said with 'According to what we understand,'" Fernandez points out. "Channel 7 tells me they have information the firefighters refused to get on the truck. I call my chiefs over at that division and ask them, and they say [the firefighters] refused to get on the truck. We have to go with what we have at the time." Fernandez was promoted last fall, in the middle of the contretemps, from lieutenant to captain.

But fire officials, despite announcing a "zero tolerance" policy regarding retaliation against Clark, Moore, and Williams, have never acknowledged the department made any errors in its treatment of the three. They are still regarded as the true offenders in an incident that never happened, and remain virtual outcasts to most of their peers. In a profession in which one's life can lie in the hands of a co-worker, the three men have lost their bearings. Neither Moore nor Williams has returned to work since going on leave in September; Clark is back on the job, working fewer hours than he used to and wary of animosity that can erupt unexpectedly. All three grow more determined with time to restore their names and resolve their professional dilemmas. But that will require help from their employer, and after nearly eight months no help is on the way.

Clark, Moore, and Williams thus have hired a labor attorney and were scheduled to meet with county representatives on Tuesday, May 14. Prominent civil-rights activist and attorney H.T. Smith, at the request of the fire department, was to mediate the session. (Smith didn't return a call seeking comment.) Both sides have agreed not to say anything publicly about the content of the talks. Several obstacles to a resolution clearly exist, though, the central one being the fire department's position that the firefighters acted wrongly, and its refusal to acknowledge any improper behavior by any department officials or employees.

The firefighters' attorney, David Nevel of Miami, accuses the department of "ongoing harassment and retaliation" against his clients, and presents what he calls "smoking gun evidence": a county "record of counseling" memo to Clark expressing concern with "your lack of judgment in deciding to make controversial and offensive statements to your fellow firefighters and the media about the American flag in the wake of the September 11 Twin Towers tragedy."

The memo blames Clark's comments for the ensuing "furor of anti-Fire Department sentiment" and the barrage of "offensive remarks (i.e., vilification and insults) in response." It is dated October 24, 2001, the day the department released its findings in the investigation, and Clark says he was given a draft memo earlier to sign. He refused, however, and the memo apparently languished in his personnel file for the next few months. Then on January 23, 2002, Clark's supervisor, Lt. Maria Elena Chin, signed the document but attached an accompanying note: "As ordered from chain of command, I am signing the attached record of counseling," Chin wrote. "I did not initiate this disciplinary process. I was not FF William Clark's supervisor at the time of incident. I am incongruent with statements written on the record of counseling form and I am reluctant to sign. As his current supervisor, I was told to sign."

Chin didn't name the person who forced her hand, but her own memo is addressed to Chief Michael Dunn, the division chief who oversaw the fire department's handling of the September flag flap and who was in charge of the subsequent investigation. Dunn has attracted resentment from many black firefighters who point out it was he who in 2000 ordered the U.S. flag removed from a truck at a Little Havana station because of Elian Gonzalez-related hostility from neighborhood Cubans. (Dunn was recently reassigned to a training division.)

Nevel wrote to current fire chief Charles Phillips on January 30 requesting the department investigate the circumstances surrounding Lieutenant Chin's signing and simultaneous repudiation of the disciplinary action. "The purported record of counseling ... contains the same kind of false accusations and innuendo that led to the media lynching of my clients," Nevel stated in his letter. "Firefighter Clark vigorously disputes the accuracy and appropriateness of this outrageous employment action, and hereby demands further review." If the department and the three firefighters aren't able to agree on ways to resolve their differences, Nevel says he will probably file a civil-rights lawsuit in federal court.

Clark, beginning his 21st year with the department, resumed working in late October because he had little accrued leave time and felt he couldn't jeopardize his family's finances. He requested to be assigned to the special-events unit, believing he'd be safer than if he went back to riding the truck with people who hated him. But even that arrangement backfired this past November. Clark was sent to work the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- until, according to Clark, a couple of other firefighters saw him and threatened to walk off the site if he wasn't removed. Then NASCAR official Al Garcia found out and complained to division chief Arthur Holmes, Sr. Even though neither Garcia nor any other event coordinator has the authority to tell the fire department whom to send to an event, Clark agreed to a reassignment to avoid confrontation.

Now he's back at one of his old stations, No. 44 in Palm Springs North. He praises his current team and says his co-workers have been supportive and willing to listen to his side of the controversy. But Clark no longer works overtime "because I don't trust anyone but my immediate crew," a decision that significantly affects his earnings and can reduce the eventual amount of his retirement fund by tens of thousands of dollars.

For Moore, a 21-year veteran of the department, and Williams, with 10 years on the job, the situation is increasingly ambiguous. In an ideal world they would prefer to salvage their careers, work in their chosen profession, and retire with a nice pension. But they don't know how that will be possible now. Moore is still using up his accrued leave time, but Williams has none left and hasn't received a check in more than two months. "My psychiatrist and therapist have told me I'm not in the mindset to go back," Moore begins, trying to explain why he hasn't been able to bring himself to try to work with people who have vowed not to even remain in the same room with him. "Basically, everything we were has been shattered."

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