By Larry McShane
New York Daily News
A Black city firefighter charges in a federal lawsuit that he was suspended for opposing his boss’ call to turn fire hoses on George Floyd protesters last year — a brutal tactic used on civil rights protesters in the deep South decades earlier.
The 13-page Brooklyn Federal Court filing details the alleged retaliation against FDNY veteran Omar Wilks after the May 2020 confrontation with his boss and the firefighter’s continued outspokeness over racism in the department.
“These defendants sought to muzzle plaintiff and inhibit his speech,” the court papers charged. “They also retaliated against him for his speech … (and) worked collectively to manufacture false claims against the plaintiff.”
The lawsuit, filed against the city, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro and five other department officials, seeks damages for violations of Wilks’ right to free speech and retaliation for his comments.
“Firefighter Wilks was unlawfully punished for seeking to change the culture of discrimination at the FDNY,” said his attorney, Aymen Aboushi. “We will continue to fight for equality and ensure that the FDNY no longer retaliates against its members who do the same.”
The 41-year-old Wilks, an eight-year fire veteran who is also an ordained minister, claimed his FDNY supervisor instructed him and other firefighters to “assist in controlling protesters by using the fire truck’s water hoses. [Wilks] objected and insisted that such an order not be followed.”
Protests around the city began in the days after Floyd’s May 25, 2020, death after a Minneapolis police officer kept a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The lawsuit said no fire hoses were used on protesters in the city, but noted no disciplinary action was taken against the official who allegedly called for their use.
In May 1963, Birmingham, Ala., Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor famously ordered the use of high-pressure hoses on Black protesters in a move that prompted outrage around the country and across the world.
The FDNY referred questions on the ongoing case to the city Law Department, where officials responded with a statement noting the suit and the facts were under review.
“At this point these are allegations made in a lawsuit, and they have not been substantiated,” said spokesman Nick Paolucci. “We’ll let the court process play out before commenting.”
According to Wilks’ suit, he also complained to department brass about the marginalization of Black firefighters and the lack of diversity in the FDNY’s ranks — only to receive a summons to meet with fire officials angered by his comments.
“He was admonished for his free speech and threatened with retaliation,” the court papers charged.
Wilks was suspended for 30 days after protesting outside the FDNY headquarters and then reassigned to a post where he could no longer collect overtime pay in addition to losing his income during his forced time off. The defendants also forced him to undergo counseling before his return to a “light duty” assignment, according to court documents.
“Defendants sought to paint the plaintiff as unstable, psychologically unfit to be a firefighter, and tarnish his image and reputation,” the court filing charged.