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The Opa-locka Three

The Opa-locka Three plus one: A young football admirer; William, Terry, and James; and the flag
Steve Satterwhite

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.

 

The Channel 7 report on Tuesday launched a barrage of phone calls to Station 26 and department headquarters, and scores of postings to a national firefighters' chatroom (originally downloaded for New Times by James Moore but open to anyone with AOL capacity). Miami radio station Y-100 (WHYI-FM) hosted a two-day rampage of hostile call-ins.

Among the electronic messages from fellow firefighters: "Let me be the first to make it perfectly clear that [I] will never ride on a fire apparatus with Jim Moore, Terry Williams or Bill Clarke [sic].... If our leadership does not remove these treasonous anti-Americans from our midst then we must once again do their jobs for them," wrote a lieutenant in the FD.

"Those who side with them and defend them are like the countries who harbor and support terrorists; equally guilty," wrote a chief. "They will never step foot at Station 12 on B shift while I am on duty."

A female firefighter from Station 31 stated she had refused to fill in as a driver at Station 26: "I won't sell out my brothers and sisters!! If we all keep united in this and refuse to go work there, maybe something will happen for the better."

A captain called Moore and Williams "two pieces of human garbage.... You can add [my shift] to those who will never ride with these scumbags." The most creative note, though, had to be from another lieutenant, who e-mailed a New York colleague: "We have a small group of self-proclaimed black radical separatist Muslims who think the United States represents oppression and so on. (Of course, they cash a Dade County paycheck and enjoy many benefits, despite their “oppressed' state.) Purportedly, this group feels the United States should set aside some territory to create a black Muslim nation, as restitution for slavery."

On Wednesday Channel 7 followed up with a second "Flag Fight" report, this time featuring an interview with Clark. An eighteen-year paramedic who also owns the landmark bookstore Afro-In Books & Things in Liberty City, Clark was expected to defend his convictions. There was only a strained exchange in which Clark complained the United States had not formally apologized for slavery, whereupon reporter Juan Carlos Fanjul snottily wondered if Clark "had a problem with the flag." Clark replied the ideals represented by the American flag were laudable but that those ideals had not been "practiced by this country."

Cut to PIO Fernandez, referring to written statements that had been submitted since the beginning of the week: "[The three] are saying they'd go home sick if that flag flew on that truck."

Refusing to perform a job duty is cause for discipline, according to one fire official contacted. Lieutenant Simon, one of the white Station 26 officers who had questioned Moore's removal of the flag, noted in a September 19 memo that Moore and Williams had both promised to call in sick if required to ride on a flag truck. Moore says he doesn't remember making such a comment; Williams insists he never said it; calling in sick was discussed briefly, only if firefighters weren't allowed to wear black bands (mourning their fallen New York comrades) on their badges, Williams said. Simon's and several others' memoranda state, "No one refused to perform his job duties on the shift in question," and "There was no hostility at Station 26 despite strong differences of opinion."

Fanjul ended his second piece with a nonretraction: "Yesterday we reported these guys are Muslims," he acknowledged. "Clark says they're not; he says he simply agrees with Muslim beliefs."

But discussion of the three men's political and religious ideas appears to beg the relevant questions in what looks increasingly like a nonstory: Why did the fire department allow its spokesman to go public with lies and distortions without first attempting to learn the truth? Why were the three firefighters relieved of duty while scores of their peers were given free rein to try to convict them in absentia and to threaten never to work with the three, a refusal of duty as blatant as the charges against the "Muslims"?

 

Lida Rodriguez-Tasseff, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has asked some of the same questions of Paulison in a September 26 letter; hoping the ACLU could help mediate the matter, she wrote the chief after being contacted by community groups concerned for the firemen's rights. On October 15 Rodriguez-Tasseff received a fax from Paulison dated October 3, assuring her "due process is being adhered to."

"In these sensitive times, it is easy for people to jump to conclusions and to misconstrue the rights of others," she warns.

Capt. Phil DiMaria, the officer in charge at Station 26 during the flag dispute, hasn't spoken publicly about the controversy, but maybe he will when the investigation is over; certainly DiMaria's September 19 memo reflects one of the few voices of reason and perspective: "I am outraged," he wrote, "that the PIO, apparently with the approval of the Fire Chief, as well as other members of this department who were not privy to the facts, found it appropriate to make comments to the media. I am incensed that Lt. [Michael] Simon, as the company officer or myself, as the station OIC, were not contacted until after the fact to find out what actually happened. This entire episode has been driven by nothing but emotion which I feel demonstrates a continuing lack of leadership on the part of this department's top administration ... while real issues affecting this department go ignored indefinitely."


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