Brian Gentles wanted to be a firefighter even before he arrived in America from Jamaica at age 12. There was something simple and noble about solving other people's problems, not to mention saving their lives. "I was fascinated by putting water on a fire," he says.
Now, however, it's the City of Miami Beach that is scrambling to douse the flames from Gentles's controversial February firing. The powerfully built black 26-year-old claims he was repeatedly harassed as a recruit because of his race. The abuse culminated in another cadet "tea-bagging" him, or putting his exposed testicles on Gentles's face. But when Gentles complained, he contends, he was the one fired — not his attacker.
"This is an injustice," Gentles says. "And the cover-up has been the most painful part."
Miami Beach Fire Department
The claim comes at the worst possible moment for Miami Beach, a city beset by scandals. Last week, former procurement director Gus Lopez was arrested for taking bribes. Meanwhile, fire inspector Henry Bryant is on trial for conspiracy to traffic cocaine.
The firefighter fiasco is also an embarrassment for a department that has a history of treating black recruits badly. The U.S. Justice Department sued the city in 1991 for discriminating against blacks and Hispanics when hiring cops and firefighters. The city later signed a consent decree and allegedly repaired its practices.
But Gentles's story shows things haven't improved. The abuse started shortly after he joined the training program. He was the only black man in the 14-member class. Other recruits made racist jokes, Gentles says. Even his training lieutenant once handed him a Burger King application and said, "Go and be with your people."
"The City of Miami Beach and the Miami Beach Fire Department take allegations of misconduct or discrimination seriously and investigate such matters thoroughly," Fire Chief Javier Otero wrote in an email to New Times. "Once this investigation comes to a close, we will disclose the findings accordingly."
One recruit in particular allegedly made a habit of persecuting Gentles. Daniel Fiorito, a young Italian-American, repeatedly called him a "nigger," Gentles claims. Then, roughly two months into training, Gentles was eating lunch and studying in the academy classroom when Fiorito allegedly whipped his testicles out and hung them inches from his fellow recruit's face.
Fiorito did it again days later, Gentles says. The black recruit awoke from a nap to find Fiorito's nuts on his forehead. When he shoved his comrade away, Fiorito said, "Why don't you lick them?" A third tea-bagging followed. But Gentles didn't complain for fear of being labeled a crybaby. "As a grown man, it's hard to go and report that another man has dehumanized and degraded you like that," he says. "I worked for five years to get that job."
The final straw came on September 24, 2011. Gentles dominated the all-important firefighter combat challenge, placing second in his class. But when Fiorito finished far behind, he aggressively approached Gentles, allegedly calling him a "stupid nigger" and challenging him to a fight.
Gentles met with his superiors to report the abuse a week later, and the department launched an investigation. Fiorito, who is now a firefighter, vigorously denied the allegations but could not be reached for comment. City spokeswoman Nannette Rodriguez says an investigation is ongoing.
In December, Gentles met with Otero. The then-assistant fire chief acknowledged that several other recruits had confirmed his complaints, Gentles says. But when Gentles began to give a recorded statement a few days later, Union President Adonis Garcia allegedly stopped the tape, took him outside the room, and told him not to "snitch" or he would be fired.
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Afraid of losing his job, Gentles recanted the story of repeated racism and sexual harassment. But this past February, he was dismissed without explanation. Gentles filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and spent his entire $15,000 savings on legal fees to fight the firing. The city denied him unemployment benefits for seven months, he says, and he couldn't afford his efficiency apartment. He was suddenly homeless, forced to live out of his car and eat meals at Camillus House, all while paying lawyers $400 an hour to fight his case.
Last month, the Fire Department finally agreed to mediation. After ten hours of stonewalling, the city offered him $100,000 (less than $50,000 after lawyers' fees and taxes) and a post as a fire inspector. But the job was limited. After 19 months, he'd have to find other employment.
Desperate, Gentles signed the agreement. But the retired fire chief who was supposed to supervise his return has since reneged. Now Gentles is again demanding a job as a firefighter. He has even recruited former Miami Beach mayoral candidate Steve Berke to his cause.
"Brian is not trying to milk Miami Beach for millions, even though he could," Berke says. "He just wants his job back."