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By Joe Eskenazi
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Brown also knew he had to act without malice. Above all, the new mayor wants order, progress. Demmons will ensure that with his patient, forgiving nature. The compassion, however, is also a political calculation. Brown and Demmons must know that minorities and women will be in the minority for a while to come. They know they'll need the support and good will of white firefighters to succeed.
Meanwhile, the white firefighters are making their own set of political calculations. They know this: No one understands the consent decree and how to enforce it better than Demmons. The man and the decree are inseparable. And though he'll move judiciously, Demmons will make the decree work.
They can no longer resist. They have to make amends. Along those lines, Local 798 President James Ahern has made several important gestures of reconciliation.
He's making appeals to minorities and women in the department to come back to Local 798. His union bargains for wages and working conditions for all 1,500 Fire Department employees. But only 1,300 of those workers are actual dues-paying 798 members. Ahern has been going around to the different minority employee associations -- the Black Firefighters Association, the Asian Firefighters Association, and Los Bomberos de San Francisco -- and asking members to return to the fold.
Ahern is also engaging in visual politics. In early March, Local 798 helped put on the official reception for the new fire commission members, all Brown appointees, all liberals, all dedicated to Demmons' agenda. At Demmons' swearing-in, there was Ahern sitting with Demmons' wife and children, laughing and smiling and sharing stories. After the swearing-in, there was Ahern again, shaking Demmons' hand and warmly congratulating him. In the lexicon of race politics, these are encouraging formalities.
But concrete acts are even more important. In 1995, when Mayor Jordan fought the extension of the consent decree, despite all the work left to be done, Local 798 refused to take a position. From a union that fought the decree all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and spent millions doing so, this act of neutrality was dramatic. In fact, Judge Patel noted it in her order extending the consent decree as a sign of changing times.
Ahern's political pronouncements also signal a new willingness to cooperate with the decree and its underlying principles.
Asked whether he still opposes the court-imposed testing system -- which many still feel is unfair to whites -- Ahern stops the interviewer and says: "I'd rather talk about what needs to be done. The Fire Department needs to be integrated. This union is supportive of the integration of the work force. This union is committed to make sure that minorities and women are not only welcome in the Fire Department but also when they seek application. They must feel a part of the department and this union. It is incumbent on this union to make sure that firefighters feel welcome and full participatory members of this department and this union."
How far his members will follow his lead is, of course, unclear.
For Demmons' part, he has held a series of retreats for officers, line firefighters, and employee associations, including 798.
But more telling, Demmons wants to put the bad old days behind him. At several points in conversation he declined to go into detail about old racist incidents. "A lot of that stuff is ancient history," Demmons says. "I would hope you use some discretion in writing about this stuff."
Asked for copies of the harassment complaints he filed with the department over the years, Demmons stalls and then fails to produce them. "This department is at a very, very critical juncture," he says. "Stirring up the past won't help."
Demmons knows that the ugly history just isn't as relevant to the struggle as it once was. The public exposure of the racism was a necessary component of the Fire Department's maturation. But it long ago served its political and legal purpose.
Ultimately, the healing of the divisions will simply take time and the small heroic acts of individuals. Like Demmons. Like Ahern. But as Audry Lee points out, there is yet another, more immutable, force that will help right the old wrongs: time.
"These days we have young people coming into the department, young people who aren't wounded by the old fights," he says. "They don't even know what the old fights were about. And they don't care.
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