A New York City firefighter is alleging racial discrimination after he claims he was booted from an honorary post because he’s white.
Lt. Daniel McWilliams is suing FDNY and the Vulcan Society — a Black fraternal organization within the department — claiming they violated his civil rights when he was barred from serving as a flag bearer during a Nov. 19, 2017, memorial for deceased members, according to the New York Daily News.
The city of New York is also named in the complaint.
The suit, filed in Brooklyn federal court on Friday, claims the former head of the society excluded McWillliams because she “specifically requested an all-black color guard. ”
“Are you removing me from the color guard because I’m not black?” asked McWilliams, a 29-year FDNY veteran assigned to the special unit.
Regina Wilson, then-president of the society, responded, “Yes, I am,” the lawsuit alleges.
Rather than being allowed to serve on the ceremonial guard, McWilliams claims he was instead ordered outside to perform “lesser duties,” including gathering guests for the service. The racially charged exchange reportedly occurred in front of McWilliams’ friends and colleagues, prompting him to flee the church “to save himself from further shame, humiliation and embarrassment.”
“As a result of the defendants’ conduct, (McWilliams) has suffered severe shame, emotional distress and damage to his reputation,” according to the complaint.
The suit describes the snub as part of “a consistent practice of … retaliatory racism, particularly towards white members of the FDNY Ceremonial Unit,” and accuses Wilson of “intentionally, maliciously and publicly stripping the plaintiff of (his) prestigious honor … on account of his race.”
It also cites a February 2017 incident where McWilliams claims Wilson barred him and seven other white members of the unit from posing in a photo with a family of a firefighter for whom a library was being dedicated, the New York Post reported.
McWilliams was one of three firefighters seen in the iconic post 9/11 photo hoisting the American flag amid the rubble at Ground Zero. The picture, snapped by photographer Thomas Franklin, has become a symbol of hope and patriotism in the years since the deadly attacks.
McWilliams’ lawsuit is seeking a jury trial to set compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants. A complaint was initially filed last year on his behalf to the FDNY’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, whose investigation found “there was sufficient, credible … evidence to find that [McWilliams] was excluded from the Ceremonial Unit color guard on account of his race.”
The FDNY Bureau of Legal Affairs downplayed the incident, however, and called McWilliams’ dismissal from the color guard a non-discriminatory “subtle exclusion.”
“I wonder how many lawyers it took in the FDNY Legal Department to come up with that clever term,” McWilliams’ lawyer, Keith Sullivan, told the Post. “I’m embarrassed for them.”
Sullivan claimed Wilson was never reprimanded for her actions, and argued the situation would’ve ended much differently if the roles— and races — were reversed.
“If roles were reversed, my white, male client would be removed from the unit and probably be on the unemployment line today,” he said.
A spokesperson for the New York City Law Department said it will review the complaint and respond accordingly once they are served.