According to a notice of claim filed Aug, 11 by Rochester, New York, firefighter Jerrod Jones, on July 7 while on-duty, his captain forced him and two other firefighters to attend a racist “Juneteenth” party at a mansion in one of Rochester’s wealthiest communities.
Jones, a 14-year veteran of the Rochester Fire Department, reported that the party was decorated with two large Juneteenth celebration flags, buckets of fried chicken; bags of party favors contained Juneteenth commemorative cups with bottles of cognac whose consumption is used by some as a racist trope to demean African Americans.
A large cutout of Donald Trump decorated the entrance to the party. Photos of Democratic politicians and members of the Rochester Police Accountability Board on stakes in the ground decorated the backyard. A woman impersonating Monroe County Supervisor, activist and journalist Rachel Barnhart was performing a mocking, sexual dance, while the crowd yelled sexually explicit comments at her, such as “Show us your tits!” At least one senior officer of the Rochester Police Department was present.
After this incident, Captain Jeffrey Krywy, who brought Jones to the party, became known as Captain “Ku Klux Krywy.” He retired from the Department before an investigation could begin. One of the hosts, dentist Nicolas Nicosa, stepped down from his position on the Board of Directors at the prestigious Highland Hospital.
‘I don’t want [my children] to experience what I experienced‘
Jerrod Jones demonstrated courage, especially given the intimidation and inaction he faced from his supervisors. He reported the incident the morning after the party, and requested not to work with Krywy again. To his dismay, he was assigned to work with Krywy again only four days after filing the complaint. No senior member of the RFD ever reached out to Jones regarding any investigation of the grievance.
At a press conference regarding the lawsuit Jones said, “It cut me very deeply. I’m sorry to even have to be here today, but in order for things to change we have to do difficult things and one of those difficult things is speaking up against the department you love with everything within you. I decided to speak up today because I have two children who maybe one day will aspire to become firefighters, and I don’t want them to experience what I experienced.”
Spoofing Juneteenth: a racist attack
According to Jones, his experience on July 7 reminded him of the movie, “Get Out,” in which wealthy white people stage events to harvest Black people’s bodies.
Juneteenth started as an African American holiday celebrated on June 19 commemorating the official end of slavery. In 2021, President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday after the national 2020 uprisings against police brutality catalyzed the nation to reflect and act upon the systemic racism that continues to plague the country.
The ultra-right sees mocking and undermining Juneteenth as just another way to reverse the progress of the Black liberation struggle and weaken the Democratic Party.
Fire departments nationwide plagued by racism, sexism
Racism and sexism are rampant not only in the Rochester Fire Department, but also in fire departments across the country. According to Willie Lightfoot, career RFD firefighter and president of Genesis the Alpha, an organization of Black firefighters: “It’s in all our departments, but it’s really, really prevalent in [fire and police] because of the fraternal organization and this mentality of, ‘What happens in this house stays in this house.’”
When asked whether Jones’s accusations surprised him, Lightfoot responded, “No.” Eighty percent of the Rochester firefighters are white.
Fire departments are sued year in and year out because of racism and sexism, yet the problem persists. Earlier this month, four firefighters in Washington, D.C., sued the District alleging systematic discrimination based on race and sex. They were denied pay increases, overtime pay and were subjected to unfair disciplinary action. According to Pamela Keith, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the case “is about systemic characteristics of [the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services] that turn it into a ‘boys club,’ in which Black women are tolerated, but not embraced or treated as equals, and in which Black women always have to beg, scrape and fight just to be treated fairly.”
Last year in June 2021, a court ruled that the New York City Fire Department could deprive Black firefighters of any accommodation for pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB, “razor bumps”), which affects 85% of Black men. The condition causes persistent pain and irritation after shaving. The firefighters sued to require FDNY to allow them to grow a modest amount of facial hair, as was allowed between 2015 and 2018 when the policy was changed. But the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit disagreed, allowing the FDNY to continue its racist practices.
Entrenched racism in Rochester
Despite playing a prominent role in the abolitionist struggles against slavery, Rochester has a long history of racism dating back to at least 1872 when abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s house was burned down by white supremacists when he was out of town. Ku Klux Klan gatherings in Rochester and surrounding suburbs abounded, the largest one in Monroe county taking place in downtown Rochester in 1926.
The legacy of redlining is still felt today. Rochester is home to the most segregated school district border in the country. Currently it is mourning the death of Daniel Prude, a mentally ill black man whose murder by the RPD was covered up for five months by the city of Rochester and the state of New York.
No pay for Captain “Ku Klux Krywy!”
The people deserve an independent, public investigation into this incident and into racism in the RFD. The RFD must review its policies and commit to taking steps to combat racism within its organization. Racism should not be rewarded, and Captain Kryway should no longer receive pay or retirement benefits on the public dime.
The fight against racism in Rochester is tied to the struggle for liberation around the world. As Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free!”