Ryan Burns / @ 1:55 p.m. / Government

Local Firefighter Files Grievance After Being Told to Remove a ‘Black Lives Matter’ Lapel Pin From His Uniform


Photo from the Change.org petition supporting local firefighter Matt McFarland’s ability to wear a Black Lives Matter lapel pin on his uniform.

Matt McFarland, a local firefighter with Humboldt Bay Fire, has filed a grievance through his union after being asked by his boss, Humboldt Bay Fire Chief Bill Gillespie, to stop wearing a “Black Lives Matter” lapel pin on his uniform.

McFarland argues that the pin represents an important message about inclusive justice and that it conforms to his department’s uniform policy, which allows lapel pins provided they are “fire service related and in good taste.” But in a written response to McFarland’s grievance, Gillespie disagrees, saying the pin is neither fire service related nor in good taste.

McFarland,who serves as president of International Association of Firefighters Local 652, is now appealing the decision to the board of the Humboldt Bay Fire Joint Powers Authority, the agency’s governing body. The five four-member board, which includes Gillespie and two members of the Eureka City Council, and two from Humboldt #1 Fire Protection District, will meet Wednesday morning at Eureka City Hall to consider the grievance.

One member of that board, Eureka Councilmember Austin Allison, told the Outpost that he supports the Black Lives Matter movement but has some concerns and is looking forward to hearing the opinions of his fellow board members.

“If someone gets to wear a Black Lives Matter pin, can someone else wear a ‘Make America Great Again’ pin?” Allison wondered. And what about “Blue Lives Matter” pins? Should the public be confronted with such viewpoints on uniforms? “It might cause divisiveness in the department,” Allison said. But he stressed that his mind isn’t made up. “I think it’s gonna be a really interesting discussion,” he said.

McFarland began wearing the pin in question back in November, according to a press release issued this morning by McFarland’s wife, lefty political activist Tamara McFarland. Apparently the pin went unnoticed by his boss for several months, but it was finally brought to Gillespie’s attention after Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills spotted it and expressed his concern. In March Gillespie ordered McFarland to remove the pin. 

In the press release, McFarland is quoted saying, “My pin is without a doubt related to my service as a firefighter because recent political events have created an environment of heightened fear and anxiety among communities of color, and increased distrust of law enforcement.”

The release goes on to quote McFarland’s unnamed legal representative as saying, “A ban on Black Lives Matters pins exposes the District to significant liability because it constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Tamara McFarland also forwarded Gillespie’s official, six-page response to her husband’s grievance filing, dated April 19 (click here for the pdf). After suggesting that McFarland should have asked for his permission before wearing the pin, Gillespie argues that the Black Lives Matter movement is inherently political and divisive.

“I understand your view of being inclusive of a section of the population, but by doing so, you are also excluding another portion of the population,” Gillespie writes. 

He goes on to note that local law enforcement and a section of the community feel threatened by the Black Lives Matter movement because “members of the group have been violent or called for violence on law enforcement around our country.”

McFarland disputed this perspective during an earlier stage in the grievance process. “Black Lives Matter is absolutely not intended to be anti-police, and if some people choose to interpret it that way, that’s not my fault,” he wrote, according to Gillespie’s letter.

Regardless, Gillespie says McFarland’s job description requires him to work closely with police and other public safety agencies, to deliver “a high level of customer service to the public and staff” and to maintain effective working relationships, all of which, he argues, are undermined by a polarizing lapel pin. Regarding the First Amendment, Gillespie says numerous courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, “have held that a [public employee’s] uniform is not a venue for freedom of speech.”

Reached by phone this morning, Gillespie declined to comment further since the dispute is actively in the grievance process.

Tamara McFarland, meanwhile, has launched a petition on change.org to gather signatures in support of her husband. The petition says the Black Lives Matter movement is “one of the most important civil and human rights efforts of this century,” adding:

In wearing his Black Lives Matter lapel pin, Mr. McFarland quietly seeks to communicate that any Black person or person of color in crisis in Eureka will be safe and respected during their Humboldt Bay Fire response.

Tamara McFarland also sent the Outpost the photo below, which appears to show Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills sporting a bracelet that reads, “Police Lives Matter.” She said the photo was taken during a racial equality workshop.

Reached by phone, Mills said the distinction is that the bracelet isn’t part of his uniform. “The uniform is a symbol of authority,” he said. And official policy prohibits unauthorized — “key word,” Mills said — memorabilia or insignias on uniforms, whether it’s supporting Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump or anything else.

The issue is not about the Black Lives Matter movement per se, he said, but rather maintaining a consistent policy. 

Asked if he would allow his officers to wear a Black Lives Matter bracelet, Mills said, “Yeah, I would.”

Tomorrow’s hearing, which is open to the public, will begin at 10 a.m. in City Council chambers. Matt McFarland plans to hold a press conference at City Hall at 9:30 a.m.

Here’s the press release from Tamara McFarland:

Second generation Eureka firefighter Matt McFarland began wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ pin on his uniform shirt in November of 2016. In March of this year, Humboldt Bay Fire Chief Bill Gillespie ordered McFarland to remove the pin. McFarland has filed a grievance with the Joint Powers Authority, which is Humboldt Bay Fire’s governing body.

Humboldt Bay Fire’s uniform policy states that one pin may be worn, provided it is fire service related and in good taste. McFarland asserts that, “My pin is without a doubt related to my service as a firefighter because recent political events have created an environment of heightened fear and anxiety among communities of color, and increased distrust of law enforcement. This sentiment is highly detrimental to our ability, as emergency responders, to do our jobs well.”

Firefighter McFarland continues, “Nobody is safe when a large portion of our community is reluctant to engage with emergency services when these services are needed. We can choose to continue to deny or ignore the difficult experiences of the people suffering most in our communities – or we can choose to listen to them, believe their lived experiences, and work together to improve the systems we share. I believe that this is a discussion worth having, and I want to live in a community that is courageous enough to have these conversations, even when they are messy, uncomfortable, and imperfect.”

According to McFarland’s legal representation, “A ban on Black Lives Matters pins exposes the District to significant liability because it constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Joint Powers Authority board members Joann Gath, Ed Dewald, Kim Bergel, and Austin Allison will meet on Wednesday, June 7th at 10:00 a.m. at Eureka City Hall (council chambers) for a hearing on the grievance. The hearing is open to the public. McFarland will hold a press conference directly before the hearing, beginning at 9:30 in front of City Hall.


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