This morning, Miami Beach commissioners will recognize Digna Abello as the first female firefighter to rise to the rank of division chief. Normally, her promotion would be a milestone for a force with a history of discrimination against women and minorities. Moments before Abello is honored, however, commissioners will hear how a black fire department employee has been racially harassed and threatened ever since filing a complaint against the city.
Brian Gentles, who until last month was a fire inspector for the city, says he has received dozens of threatening phone calls from people he suspects are firefighters. In one call, embedded below, someone pretending to be a Chase bank employee calls him a "n***er," threatens him with a weed whacker, and tells him "you better start running if I were you."
"I have been dealing with this foolishness since 2011," Gentles says. "So far the city hasn't taken it seriously."
A Miami Beach spokeswoman says the city has done its best to investigate Gentles' claims. "We do not condone racial harassment or harassment of any kind," Nannette Rodriguez says. "When the allegations were brought to our attention, an investigation was opened with our police department."
Gentles is no stranger to racial abuse. As New Times reported in October 2012, Gentles says he suffered constant harassment as soon as he joined Miami Beach's firefighter training program in 2011. 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."
Another recruit repeatedly called him a "nigger," Gentles claims. One day when Gentles was sleeping, the recruit put his testicles on Gentles' forehead and asked, "Why don't you lick them?"
Gentles kept quiet about the abuse for months. When he finally reported the tea-bagging and name-calling, Gentles says, superiors told him not to "snitch." Then, in February 2012, he was suddenly dismissed without explanation.
Gentles filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The city hired an investigator to look into the claims but closed the probe when other firefighters denied the accusations. Nonetheless, Miami Beach agreed to pay Gentles $100,000 and provide him with a temporary job as a fire inspector.
When that temporary job ended last month and Gentles was not rehired, he decided to come forward with evidence of the abuse he has been suffering ever since first crying foul.
Gentles says the phone calls began last summer. At first, callers claiming to be from USA Mobile Drug Testing asked Gentles to meet them in various places for what they said were random drug tests required of city employees.
USA Mobile Drug Testing is a real company. The only problem: It has no contract with the City of Miami Beach.
When Gentles refused, the callers demanded to know where he was. Gentles took that as a threat.
The calls took a turn for the worse in July 2013, when someone -- Gentles suspects a group of five firefighters -- called pretending to be from "Chase financial services." What starts out as a prank phone call quickly ends up with the man calling Gentles a "n***er," threatening him with a weed whacker, and telling him "you better start running if I were you."
Listen for yourself.
Here is a partial transcription of the threatening phone call, beginning around the 1:50 mark. Tired of the relentless, racist phone calls, Gentles initially pretends to be his "brother" Billy and can be heard taking a defiant tone.
Caller: Hello, Billy, you dumb bitch. Are you black or white? Are you a bitch?
Gentles: You suck.
You're a quiet bitch, if you ask me.
It sounds like you're black now, so we treat black people a little differently than we do whites
You guys treat them a lot nicer?
What do black people get? Do we get some Kool-Aid and watermelon?
No, no, no. You guys are very tough people. You know. So we definitely handle you guys a little differently. We beat you guys with a very long spoon. Hehe. That's how we do it here with Chase financial services.
You give us a long spoon? But I don't think I want it if it doesn't have any watermelon or Kool-Aid.
You are beneath me. You are beneath me. I'm white, OK?
You got some watermelon or Kool-Aid or fried chicken?
You got some watermelon or fried chicken or Kool-Aid?
We here at Chase financial services pride ourselves on taking care of our white customers only. You've just identified yourself as a nigger.
Yes. I am. I am. How'd you know I was a nigger?
I see in your file... you better start running if I were you. Because here at Chase financial services, we still enact the code of Hammurabi, an eye for an eye, a nigger for a nigger [laughter, then something inaudible]. It's all the KKK influence. It plays a very important role in how we handle you people.
Oh really. How do you handle us? If you're not going to give me Kool-Aid or watermelon or that kind of stuff, I don't know. I don't think I want to be your friend.
...Please try to answer the phone. Don't change your phone number. Because what we usually do is I call you from time to time. Just answer your phone and everything will go smooth, just like you're doing now.
The minute you stop answering your phone, then we have a problem, Mr. Gentiles [sic].
What's going to happen?
[Caller then says he is "The Joker" and briefly puts "Batman" on the line.]
Joker: If he doesn't answer the phone [inaudible]... Sorry to have some [nasty?] friends close to you pull out the weed whacker every once in a while [makes sound of weed wacker].
Why are you still on the phone, you bitch?
Tell me more about why I'm a nigger.
Batman: Are you there? Are you there, you stupid nigger. [What are you on] the fucking for?
Where do I work?
I don't know where you work. All I know is you're a fucking nigger. You listen to me very carefully. [inaudible threat]
You're a dumb motherfucker, you know that?
Gentles took the recording to Miami Beach Police. A report shows that detectives looked into the calls, even subpoenaing phone records. They found a pattern of calls from the fire department as well as numerous calls masked by internet phone services.
Ultimately, however, the detectives closed their investigation when they were unable to trace the numbers to anyone.
Gentles is hoping that exposing the abuse will compel the FBI to look into the matter. He says his attorney notified Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales of the phone calls but never heard back. Morales did not return a request for comment.
"This is what I had to deal with for months," Gentles says. "I'm still waiting for the mayor or the city commission to take some action."
P.U.L.S.E., a anti-discrimination group, will tell commissioners about Gentles' ordeal during the public comments section of this morning's meeting.
Gentles knows that by once again coming forward, he is again inviting more abuse. He says his motivations are twofold. First, he wants his job back. When he was fired in 2012, Gentles had to resort to living out of his car.
"I don't want to go back to being homeless," he says. Although the temporary job he received in the settlement wasn't a firefighter position, it was a blessing in disguise to be away from the cruel atmosphere inside the firehouse. "I just want to work."
Second, Gentles wants the city to finally fulfill its promise to stamp out racism. Back in 1991, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Miami Beach for discriminating against blacks and Hispanics when hiring cops and firefighters. The city later signed a consent decree pledging to fix the problem.
Miami Beach's broken promise has twice cost Gentles his job, he says. Even worse, the endless abuse has given him chest pains, anxiety, and depression. He's worried that one day his callers with follow through with their threats.
"These people call me over and over again, even leaving me voicemails," he says. "That shows how arrogant they are and how little they worry about getting in trouble. But I think if city officials sent them a strong message, then the harassment would cease."
Gentles says he wants to see people charged over the phone calls. But even that might not repair the damage.
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"The people who are harassing me want me to just go away and never come back," Gentles says.
In that sense, the city appears to have already given them what they wanted.