By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
This "one-for-one" hiring was the department's first affirmative action policy. Hiring from the qualifying list continued until the list was exhausted, creating the first rush of African-Americans into the department. But the judge's rulings stopped short of mandating lasting minority hiring goals. The plaintiffs accepted a consent decree that merely contained guidelines to be used in developing a new entry-level test for the next year, which still resulted in a wide disparity in the numbers of whites and blacks hired by the department: 88 percent to 54 percent.
Still, Sweigert's rulings goaded the department into making changes. When the current consent decree was approved in 1988, the judge in that case noted that 55 percent of the blacks in the department had been hired due to Sweigert's one-for-one hiring scheme.
The year after Sweigert instituted the one-for-one plan, 1974, Demmons was called to join the department's fire college. Paradoxically, Demmons entered the department on a racially biased test with no affirmative action to propel him.
Demmons did well in fire college, especially in the mundane but stressful ritual of tracking engines and trucks on the light board. He says that he had no interest in civil rights battles or affirmative action back then.
"I came into the department not to be an advocate but to be a firefighter," says Demmons. He took up his first assignment at Station 38 at California and Laguna. "The first station I put in for was one of the largest in the city," Demmons says. "At the time, it had a truck, an engine, one or two rescue squads, a water rescue unit, a battalion chief, and an engine service unit.
"The reason I put in for that station was it gave me an opportunity to work all those different units," he says. "I always tried to learn as much about the job."
When he encountered racism on the job site, he tried to deal with it man to man.
Demmons recounts the story of the time he was stationed at a house with an alcoholic lieutenant. A call came in one night and Demmons, who was in charge of the tracking board, tried to rouse the dead-drunk lieutenant, who could not be awakened. The driver refused to go on the run without the lieutenant, which was against policy, so the company missed the run.
Luckily it was a false alarm. But that same evening, when the battalion chief at division headquarters learned of the missed run he called the station. Everyone knew the lieutenant had a drinking problem, including the battalion chief, but Demmons tried to cover for him. He sent some guys upstairs to rouse the lieutenant, who finally awoke from his stupor and tumbled to the phone. As Demmons was hanging up his line, he heard the lieutenant blame the missed run on him.
"Well, chief," the lieutenant said. "You know how it is, we have a new nigger here."
Later, Demmons confronted the lieutenant and told him that he didn't appreciate being blamed for the missed run and didn't like the use of racial epithets. "I just talked to him," Demmons recalls. "We talked for a few hours, and he told me that his daughter was raped by a black man and how he didn't like blacks. I said that didn't make a lot of sense and explained that if a white guy raped my daughter I wouldn't hate all whites."
After that, Demmons says, the lieutenant didn't use the N word.
Demmons handled other workplace incidents in the same manner. When a superior officer at another station kept yelling at Demmons to speed up his cleaning detail while other white firefighters sloughed off without reprimand, Demmons pointed the disparate treatment out.
"I said, 'I guess it's the color contrast that makes me stick out,' " Demmons says. "He started laughing. He said, 'You know what, you're right.'"
Fighting institutionalized racism, Demmons soon found out, was tougher. One man can be moved with words and good faith. Institutions, however, require the force of law.
His first taste of "the struggle" came in 1978 as he walked out of a local high school after taking that year's lieutenants exam.
Owing to his lack of seniority, Demmons was at least eight points behind other exam-takers, so he studied intensely. He was playing the game, quite literally, by the book.
As Demmons exited the exam session, a white guy turned to him laughing and expressed relief at how many repeat questions there were on his test. Repeat questions? Demmons asked. Yeah, the guy said, questions that were on the last test. Last test?
It slowly dawned on Demmons. Old tests were retained and given to new applicants, and the department kept old test questions alive in a sort of wink-and-nod gambit to facilitate the hiring of favored (white) applicants.
Demmons says 122 of the 144 multiple choice questions on the 1978 lieutenants exam were repeat questions. "That was just so devastating to me," he says. "I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me."
Other things became clearer, too. Like the hidden meaning behind the times he'd walk into a firehouse room and a group of white firefighters would frantically hide sheets of paper. "I was hurt," Demmons recalls. "These were people whom I considered friends, guys I'd fished with. It wasn't a good feeling. I hadn't aligned myself along racial lines, and here they were making their decisions based on that."