For the second time in three months, the image of John Wayne has gotten mixed into a stew of racial resentments and labor-management tensions in the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
A white firefighter filed a union grievance this week against an African American battalion chief, alleging he was harassed by the chief after he put a 6-foot cardboard cutout of Wayne in the recreation room of the Palmdale station.
Dozens of posters or cutouts of the rugged screen legend have been appearing in county firehouses ever since a dispute over a Wayne poster at the station in Carson in September, according to a firefighters union official.
And at the October union meeting, some white members wore T-shirts emblazoned with the motto, "Save the Duke," Wayne's well-known nickname.
Both Carson and Palmdale disputes pitted a white firefighter against a black supervisor. Many in the department, black and white, union and management, say that the issue cuts across both racial and labor-management lines. They say it illustrates the way in which tensions in one area aggravate those in the other, with Wayne's image becoming embroiled in white resentment of affirmative action as well as rank-and-file skirmishing with their bosses.
"This issue isn't about John Wayne," said Brent Burton, a member of the Stentorians, an association of black firefighters. "This is bigger than John Wayne. This is union-management and race."
A fire captain in the South Bay, who contended that affirmative action is harming the department, said, "We took advantage of the John Wayne thing and ran with it to get the attention of the chief. This was about affirmative action and promotions," said the captain, who asked not to be identified.
County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said this week he was unaware of the Palmdale incident but acknowledged that the whole ruckus over images of a dead movie actor may reveal other morale problems within his department.
"There's nothing that indicates to me that racism is really what our problem is," Freeman said. "There are concerns about promotions, disciplinary actions" and "concerns about double standards" under affirmative action programs, he said.
He has set up panels of outside consultants and firefighters to deal with all the issues brought out by the Wayne ruckus, he said.
But why John Wayne?
Some black firefighters call Wayne a symbol of bigotry, pointing especially to a Playboy magazine interview in May 1971 in which Wayne said he believed blacks were not yet capable of handling leadership roles.
"I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility," the then-63-year-old Wayne, who died in 1979, told the writer. "I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people."
"Being African American, I can understand some of the resentment about Wayne," said Willie Dwer, a 38-year-old fire inspector who works in Arcadia. "In the past he made some anti-black and anti-minority statements," Dwer said, and some African American firefighters see him as a symbol of white conservatives and the "good old boy network."
"All I ask is just not to be disrespected where I work," Dwer said.
The pro-Wayne contingent contends that the posters and cutouts contain no racial insults, that they are based on Wayne's long reputation as an icon of rugged American individualism, the kind of guy who would not be pushed around by his boss.
"If it had been a white chief, we would have done the same thing," said Dallas Jones, president of Los Angles County Firefighters Union Local 1014.
"If it had been a picture of Mickey Mouse, we would have had shirts saying 'Save the Mouse.' "
Wayne first became tangled in the department's internal tensions in September, when Battalion Chief Daniel Scott removed an 8-by-10-inch photo of the movie star that had hung for 20 years in the Victoria Street firehouse in Carson.
Many firefighters were incensed. Although Chief Freeman ordered the picture reinstated, their union filed a grievance, alleging Scott had exceeded his authority.
Scott has declined to publicly discuss his motives. But a union memo to the department quotes Scott, who is black, as saying: "How would you like it if I had a picture of Farrakhan in my office?" indicating he felt the Wayne poster was racially antagonistic.
"It had nothing to do with what John Wayne said or did," Freeman maintained. "It became a racial issue when Farrakhan was mentioned."
With the Wayne image appearing elsewhere in the department, the next incident occurred at Fire Station 24 in Palmdale, where Capt. Al Schriver had placed the life-size Wayne cutout in the recreation room.
Battalion Chief Ollie Linson, who supervises stations in the area, summoned him into a station office on Oct. 13 and began asking Schriver questions about the cutout, Schriver said.
Although Linson, an African American, did not order the cutout removed, Schriver, who is white, filed a grievance against him, alleging "continued harassment," including changing his parking space.
"The incident over at Carson was about what's appropriate for a fire station," said Schriver, who is on stress leave.
"But Chief Linson completely blew it out of proportion and made it into a racial issue."
Schriver rejected the argument that Wayne's comments in Playboy paint him as racially prejudiced.
"That's one interview from almost 30 years ago, and if that comment is the basis for deeming somebody offensive, then I think that's wrong," Schriver said. "A lot of people do interviews that other people don't like. . . . If that one reason makes him offensive, then that's a weak argument."
Freeman has set up a panel of four outside consultants, including a psychologist, to prepare a report to him on the Carson incident by Jan. 15 as "a confidential and objective way to sort through our issues and see what our priorities should be."
He also set up a four-person team of two white and two black firefighters, including Linson, who will review the outside panel's suggestions and decide how the department will proceed.
Union officials are hopeful about that process, saying the panel already has conducted numerous interviews with firefighters.
Jones, and other union officials, said they believe the issue is "blowing over," and that more pictures of Wayne are coming down than going up in fire stations around the county.
"Everything was getting blown out of proportion," Jones said. "This is an attempt to put things back to their proper perspective."
Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this story.
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Wayne's Own Words
Excerpts from an interview with John Wayne in Playboy magazine, published May 5, 1971:
Playboy: Angela Davis [a Communist professor in the San Francisco Bay Area] claims that those who would revoke her teaching credentials on ideological grounds are actually discriminating against her because she's black. Do you think that's true?
Wayne: With a lot of blacks, there's quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.
Playboy: Let's change the subject. For years American Indians have played an important--if subordinate--role in your Westerns. Do you feel empathy with them?
Wayne: I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that's what you're asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
An Ethnic Breakdown
The following charts show the ethnic breakdown of several ranks in the county Fire Department. There are 2,371 uniformed employees in the department and eight ranks, including the chief.
African American: 12.3%
Other (1) : 5%
African American: 5.5%
Other (1): 1.4%
African American: 13%
Assistant Battalion Chiefs
African American: 14.3%
(1) Other includes Native Americans, Asians, Filipinos and women.