Using John Wayne as a Weapon

For some, John Wayne is an icon of American individualism. For others, the late cowboy actor is an icon of American racism. Wayne's image is at the center of tensions within the Los Angeles County Fire Department over affirmative action and labor relations. Most recently, a white captain filed a union grievance against a black supervisor who questioned him about a lifesized cutout of Wayne in the recreation room of the Palmdale station.

Across the county, fire stations are posting images of Wayne as a defiant symbol of white firefighters' complaints with the department's management and affirmative action policies. The ruckus over Wayne started in September, when a black battalion chief ordered the late movie star's picture removed from the Carson station, where it had hung for 20 years. The picture was later reinstated, but many rank-and-file firefighters and station captains seized on the dispute as an example of management overstepping its bounds.

A few firefighters concede the pictures are intended only to get the attention of department brass, but it is a tactic that could have a particularly divisive impact. For some black firefighters, Wayne embodies American bigotry. They point to a 1971 interview in which Wayne said he believed blacks were not yet capable of leadership roles. White firefighters know how their black colleagues feel, and that's what makes the images disturbing: They contain a deliberate and not-so-subtle subtext.

Firefighters trust each other with their lives. The kind of divisiveness fostered by the Wayne debate undermines that trust. We don't quarrel with the firefighters' right to protest, and we encourage them to try to correct problems they perceive in the department. Nor do we fault anyone for innocently posting a picture of Wayne. The initial order to remove the picture was probably an overreaction.

It is hard to discern how much of the current tension stems from normal labor-management relations and how much stems from resentment over the department's affirmative action policies. The two are intertwined in a more general morale problem that Chief P. Michael Freeman has properly vowed to address. One element is certain: The continuing use of Wayne's image as a sign of protest is counterproductive. Posting it smacks more of meanness than protest and only widens existing differences. Some stations have recognized this and already are taking down the pictures. The rest should follow.

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