Biting the Hand That Needs

From the beach to city hall, Fort Lauderdale puts women and minorities in their place, says an affirmative action specialist who was fired after speaking up

None of this would have never happened. All the hope, effort and opportunity at employment only prove to be futile after being terminated by the city of Fort Lauderdale (job references). I felt I was treated very unfairly by the city after 17 years. The malicious and racist nature of how my situation was 'set up' and handled. The economic lynching without regard or recourse was (is) still something very evil. Since I couldn't continue to support my family, life became nothing. I no longer wanted to live in this kind of world. I also wanted to punish some of the cowardly, racist devils that help bring this about, along with the system. I am glad I did it. It became war. There should have been a more humane system. But no. All too often, the disease (racism) is personified in the white race of devils. After nearly 41 years of life as a black male there's been too many negative experiences and encounters.

"Well, that's kind of clear," Johnson says of the note today. "Even if it wasn't racial, it becomes a racial issue by virtue of this world and society that we live in. It was racial just because it happened that way [a black man killing all white men]. And you're sticking your head in the sand if you choose not to see that."

After Johnson's visit with the city's managers, she was not asked back to lead counseling sessions with employees. Instead, Panoch and Larkin hired a crisis-management team with experience in workplace violence, not racism.

"It was my conclusion after spending time [analyzing the shooting] that that act was not racially motivated," Witschen says. "Nothing I see warrants that conclusion."

That's because neither Witschen nor any other white manager was looking in the right place, Lamar says. Whites didn't think race played a part in the killings. Blacks did.

"No one wanted to address what could have been the real cause of that tragedy," says City Commissioner Carlton Moore. "If an individual has not lived it, if an individual has not felt it, they cannot understand it."

Even more important to Lamar, at the time, was to be at least involved with the recovery process.

"In my opinion, for the city not to have the city's [affirmative action specialist] involved in all phases of analysis and remedy of this tragedy will prove to be a mistake when the final chapter is recorded and read," she wrote in an e-mail to Panoch in early March 1996. "I am trying not to let that happen."

Though she wasn't invited to her bosses' meetings, Lamar nevertheless talked to dozens of black employees at funerals and memorials for days after the shootings, and most admitted to understanding how McCree could have done what he did. "The black men felt anger and fear, because they had traveled down that same road and weren't sure how far they were from McCree," Lamar says. "Maybe McCree went fifteen steps, and these men went twelve, thirteen, fourteen. They didn't know where that point was for them, and that scared them.

"The city did something worse than not dealing with it," Lamar says. "They used their lack of dealing with it to state that it was a nonissue. I think the same powder keg is building just like it did before."

Eventually Lamar's managers responded to her pleas. In an e-mail sent to Panoch, Larkin wrote that he would "prefer that Deborah spend her time on the specific assignments she has already been given." Two days later she was reprimanded for missing deadlines on four projects. Three of the deadlines had passed while she was out sick. The fourth was actually a government contracting expo she'd missed seven months earlier. On March 31, 1996, Lamar was suspended for four days with pay.

"When my questions and advice challenges the status quo... I was to be silenced by personal discipline as a distraction, and set up for future termination," she alleges in a written appeal of her suspension. "Missing manning a booth at an expo seven months ago is insufficient grounds for a manager career to be put on the line or for any formal discipline."

During her suspension Lamar decided it was time to submit a detailed affirmative action report, no matter what the consequences. She submitted the 61-page draft to department heads on July 10, 1996, five months after the shootings and several months past deadline. On July 26, Larkin asked her to resign, saying that if she didn't he would recommend she be fired, Lamar claims. He cited incompetence and missed deadlines as the primary reasons.

Lamar refused to resign, and a week later she was given notice of eleven charges against her, including more missed deadlines, violations of e-mail and computer policies, and spending $600 on outside printing to get her affirmative action report prepared.

Larkin suspended Lamar without pay for twenty days and recommended to Hanbury that she be fired. As she served her suspension, other charges trickled in, including using the city's computers to conduct personal business on city time and exceeding the budget of a summer youth program she oversaw by about $4500. Lamar claims that these are false charges, because in each case she was doing her job and had the approval of her superiors. Despite her claims, she was fired.

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