It was, by the participants' later admission, an offensive, racist stunt.
Three white city employees smeared on blackface, donned Afro wigs and rode on a Labor Day parade float titled "Black to the Future." The two off-duty firefighters and an off-duty police officer threw pieces of watermelon and fried chicken into the crowd, and one reenacted the killing of a Texas black man who was dragged to death behind a truck.
New Yorkers quickly condemned the action, and the three men have since apologized, acknowledging that their display, which had been entered in the "funniest float" competition, was inappropriate. But should they have lost their jobs over the incident, or was their behavior protected by the 1st Amendment?
These were the issues in federal court here Wednesday, as former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took the witness stand to defend his swift call for the men's termination soon after the 1998 parade in Broad Channel, Queens. In a civil court hearing that quickly turned into a Big Apple circus, Giuliani -- a normally tough-talking, controlling figure -- was forced to sit quietly while lawyers bickered over his comments and a federal judge lectured him for making allegedly inaccurate comments that may have "inflamed" the atmosphere.
"I felt it was a disgusting and outrageous thing that happened," the former mayor said as he recalled the float and was peppered with questions by lawyers for the three fired employees, who are suing to get their jobs back. "I believe it's conduct that, if done by a policeman or firefighter, indicates you can't serve anymore. You have disgraced the uniform."
Giuliani added that such behavior had the potential to stoke racial unrest, and that it was his responsibility to condemn it. However, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Sprizzo, who will issue a ruling in the nonjury trial, scolded the former mayor for making overheated comments at the time of the incident. He also ridiculed Giuliani's insistence that the city's police and fire commissioners -- both of whom he had appointed -- were not influenced by his calls for the men's dismissal. "You're the boss, right?" he lectured the former mayor. "Knowing how strongly you felt [about the parade], did you really expect them to disagree with you?"
Discoursing on the perils of false contrition, the nature of parody and the futility of wishing that something had never happened, the outspoken Sprizzo provoked laughter in the packed courtroom with impromptu references to former GOP Senate leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, comedian Mel Brooks and the recent playoff loss of the New York Giants. A decision in the case, which has attracted intense coverage, is expected within several weeks.
The lawsuit for the three men, which was brought against the city by the New York Civil Liberties Union, alleges that Giuliani prejudiced the case against former police officer Joseph Locurto and former firefighters Jonathan Walters and Robert Steiner by calling for their dismissal without knowing all the facts. The lawsuit also alleges that Giuliani turned the men into scapegoats to score points with black New Yorkers, who had been alienated by the Police Department's tactics in minority communities.
Christopher Dunn, assistant director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, argued that then-Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and then-Police Commissioner Howard Safir were forced to fire the men several weeks after the parade because of Giuliani's strong comments. In one press comment, Dunn noted, the mayor voiced outrage over the float and said of Locurto: "The only way this guy gets back on the police force is if the Supreme Court of the United States tells us to put him back."
As a result, the attorney said, the police officer and the other two men could not have possibly received a fair and impartial disciplinary hearing.
Had officials probed the incident, Dunn added, they would have learned that the three men -- however misguided -- were attempting to "parody" deep-seated racial stereotypes in the heavily white community and merely "entertain" people.
One by one, Locurto, Walters and Steiner testified earlier that they had no idea that their blackface and Afro wigs might offend others.
When Walters reenacted the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr., he said he was attempting to send a message that "this is what you did to our brother in Texas and we will not allow it here." Later, he confessed, he realized that the action was "over the top."
All three men repeatedly expressed remorse. Locurto said he realized the float was controversial when he saw news coverage of it. "I realized it could be offensive to other people," he said. "We didn't mean to be offensive."
But Sprizzo said contrition over such behavior was perhaps too easy, adding: "You can look no further than Trent Lott for that one." (Lott resigned last month as GOP Senate leader amid a furor over his remark that the country would have been better off if a segregationist candidate had been elected president in 1948.)
Sprizzo agreed, however, that there was a fine line between parody and ridicule, and he said the men may indeed have had a 1st Amendment right to put on entertainment that, in the end, turned out to be offensive. "You don't always know" how things will be perceived, he said, startling Jonathan Pines, an attorney for the city, with a reference to Brooks' "The Producers," in which two promoters put on a play about Hitler that they think will offend people but winds up becoming a runaway hit. The judge also said that the men's remorse, while understandable, could not change what had happened. As an example, he pointed to the Giants' playoff loss last weekend, which, while marred by poor officiating, could not be reversed.