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Firefighters Who Wore Blackface Defend Their Actions

Firefighters Who Wore Blackface Defend Their Actions


A New York City firefighter who is facing dismissal for wearing blackface at a Labor Day parade in Queens testified yesterday that he did not mean to offend anyone when he grabbed the back of a pickup truck and dangled in an apparent parody of the killing of a black man in Jasper, Tex., who was dragged to his death from a pickup truck.

The firefighter, Jonathan Walters, 29, testified that he and a fellow firefighter, Robert Steiner, also 29, were both wearing blackface on a float in the Labor Day parade in Broad Channel, Queens, when he spontaneously decided to hang off the back of the truck. As he was dragged, he testified, he referred to the June 7 killing of James Byrd Jr. in Texas.

''I just held on to the tailgate of the truck and dragged there for approximately five seconds or so,'' Mr. Walters testified. As he was dragged, he said, he shouted: ''This is what happened to our brother in Texas! We shall not allow that here!''

Mr. Walters and Mr. Steiner both contended that they did not mean to offend black people when they covered their faces in black lipstick, donned black wigs and joined friends who tossed pieces of watermelon to the crowd, posed next to fried chicken cartons and parodied break dancing while on a float called ''Black to the Future: Broad Channel 2098.''

Both firefighters, who live in Broad Channel, testified that they simply wanted to mock their virtually all-white neighborhood and its attitudes about race by appearing on a float that depicted what they called an ''integrated'' Broad Channel a century from now.

But attorneys for the Fire Department argued that the actions of the two men, and the negative publicity it has generated since Labor Day, had brought discredit to the department and violated the department's rules of conduct. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani called for their ouster days after the incident came to light.

William M. Feehan, the First Deputy Fire Commissioner, testified that he was concerned that the parade incident had tarnished the department's reputation. Furthermore, he testified, it could hamper the mostly white department's efforts to recruit more black and Hispanic firefighters and harm its relationship with residents in black neighborhoods.

Judge Rosemarie Maldonado, who presided over their administrative trial, which ended yesterday at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings in lower Manhattan, said that she would make her recommendations in the case to Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen as early as next week.

Firefighters Walters and Steiner both testified that they believed their off-duty conduct had not violated departmental rules. Testifying about the dragging incident, Firefighter Walters said, ''If it was perceived to be offensive, or was represented by the media in an offensive manner, then I apologize for that.''

The incident came to light the day after Labor Day, when WCBS-TV broadcast what it described as an amateur video of the float. Firefighters Walters and Steiner both testified that they had been egged on by the man and woman who shot the videotape.

''They were yelling 'Throw the watermelon! Do this! Breakdance!' '' Firefighter Steiner testified. ''They wanted to get it on film.''

Firefighter Walters said that after he dangled briefly from the back of the truck, the woman with the camera asked him to do it again for the camera, and that he complied.

Marvyn Kornberg, the lawyer representing Firefighter Steiner, charged in an interview that WCBS-TV staged some of the scenes it broadcast.

Bill Carey, the station's news director, said, ''We're comfortable with our story and we stand by it.''

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