Firefighter kneels during anthem at football game, union president issues apology
Free expression is one of America’s most cherished rights, but when it comes to protest, it is generally agreed that there is a time and a place for it.
Cameron McGarity, a firefighter in Chicago, forgot the second half of that lesson at the First Responders Bowl, a charity football game at Brother Rice High School in the Windy City last weekend.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that McGarity’s union chief, Jim Tracy, wasted no time and minced no words at the show of disrespect not just to the anthem but, if Colin Kaepernick’s stated reason for the protest — denouncing police violence against African-Americans — is to be taken at face value, delivering a massive slap in the face to the Chicago Police Department across the field from McGarity at a time when the city’s protectors were supposed to be having some wholesome fun for charity.
Tracy said he was “appalled and embarrassed” at what he called the “classless behavior of one of our members” at the game.
“This game was about honoring our Line of Duty Death Brothers Paul Bauer, CPD and Juan Bucio, CFD and their families for their bravery and commitment to the City of Chicago,” Tracy wrote in a “Dear Brothers and Sisters” email to the rank-and-file.
“This was not the place to make a self-serving, attention-drawing, pot-stirring statement,” he wrote. “This person has not made this statement at any other games this year. He chose this game for this classless act for his own personal gain.”
Tracy added, “I apologize to all the CPD and CFD players, their families and friends who were upset by this selfless act.”
One presumes that the union president meant “selfish” rather than “selfless” in that last bit.
The game between the Fire Department Blaze and the CPD Enforcers is a great family-friendly day for the city; for McGarity to bring divisive politics into what is supposed to be a day of unity is astoundingly tone-deaf.
Tracy continued his remarks by saying that the game is a “great fundraiser against our rivals the CPD Enforcers, which benefits our Gold Badge and Gold Star widows and orphans.”
“It’s very competitive and a lot of fun, and I hope that we can continue this yearly fund raiser,” he said.
McGarity, perhaps unsurprisingly, could not be reached for comment.
Making matters worse is that the game specifically honored Bauer and Bucio, and for one of those fallen officers, the hyper-reactive political climate over alleged police violence may have made him less safe in the line of duty.
Bauer was shot six times by career criminal Shomari Legghette, who was wearing body armor and is exactly the reason police have had to be militarized, especially in a city colloquially known as “Chiraq” for its war zone-like crime-infested areas.
Bucio, meanwhile, also died a hero, trying to rescue a man who died in the south branch of the Chicago River; the raging waters claimed the fireman’s life as well.
McGarity, for his part, touched off a conflagration within the ranks of the fire department and a chorus of boos from the 1,000 spectators in attendance.
Teammates were so disgusted by the act that they are talking about kicking McGarity off the team before next year’s game.
McGarity will not receive a reprimand or any other form of discipline from the fire department itself; as a government agency, for the department to fire McGarity for his display would run afoul of the First Amendment.
But freedom of speech does not mean a guarantee that the speech will be accepted, as Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford told the Sun-Times.
Langford simply said, “It appears the member is expressing his First Amendment right to demonstrate.”
Former police Commissioner Gerry McCarthy, who is mounting an electoral challenge to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said that if it were his decision, he’d ring up McGarity for “conduct unbecoming an officer” and, presumably, leave it to the courts to decide the First Amendment implications.
Emanuel, for the record, had no comment on the matter.
Last fall, two black Chicago police officers got in hot water for kneeling alongside Aleta Clark, an “anti-violence activist,” and posting the picture to Instagram, but that falls under the jurisdiction of social media policies, which — since they are agreed to as part of accepted terms of employment — are generally not regarded as suppression of free speech.
This case is a bit hairier precisely because it did not appear to explicitly violate any employment terms.
But there is a time and a place for protest. And a charity football game to honor the fallen is not that place.
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