‘See the world through our eyes’: Black fire chiefs share powerful messages amid unrest

Chiefs speak of balancing the pain of injustice and their duty to serve the community

As protests and riots continue to unfold around the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody, the national conversation has again shifted to the issue of police violence and systemic racism.

Demonstrators have taken to the streets, supporting the Black Lives Matters movement and denouncing police violence. Some protests have turned riots, with individuals setting fires and even attacking public safety personnel, including firefighters.

The civil unrest has created a challenging and dangerous situation for many fire chiefs and firefighters. Three black fire chiefs from Toledo, Portland and Seattle shared personal messages with their community detailing how they balance the pain of injustice with their duty to serve.

Left to right: Toledo Fire & Rescue Chief Brian Byrd; Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Sara Boone; Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins
Left to right: Toledo Fire & Rescue Chief Brian Byrd; Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Sara Boone; Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins

Toledo (Ohio) Fire & Rescue Chief: ‘I had to balance the responsibility of my duty’

Toledo Fire & Rescue Chief Brian Byrd shared this powerful message on Sunday:

Last night …

Last night my soul was torn ….

Last night, as I do EVERY night, I faced the fact that I was a black man BEFORE becoming a civil servant.

Last night, as I do EVERY night, I faced the fact that I AM a black man WHILE I work as a civil servant.

Last night, as I do EVERY night, I had to face the fact that I WILL BE a black man AFTER I am a civil servant.

Last night …

Last night, I felt the same anger and rage over the very issues being protested … because those same recurring issues affect me, my sons, my family …

Last night, while trying to manage the chaos sparked by the same anger that I FEEL, I have to beg my son to not take part because I see the potential consequences of not only his actions, but the actions of others … as I watched the night unfold.

Last night, I had to balance the responsibility of my duty with praying that I don’t see the face of my son looking at me in disappointment because I asked him not to participate … when he knows that I really want to stand beside him with my fist raised … because he knows that I am in pain.

Last night, I felt the desire to see a system of inequity and injustice burn … while, at the same time, understanding the need to fulfill my duty to limit the physical destruction of property and people … especially of people who feel the same pain that I feel.

Last night ….

Last night ….

THIS MORNING, as I look at the sunshine, I still feel … LAST NIGHT

Toledo Fire & Rescue tweeted its support of the chief:

Portland Fire & Rescue Chief: ‘This is a moment of reckoning’

Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Sara Boone gave a powerful speech during a Saturday press conference following a riot in downtown Portland: 

My number one priority is the protection of this community – all communities that make up the city of Portland. It doesn’t matter your economic status. It doesn’t matter your lot in life. It doesn’t matter your hardships. But I can tell you where my heart lies. It lies in the city and it lies in protecting all lives. And last night – this is the city I grew up in, this is the city I’ve served for 25 years – I’m standing here because I entrusted my life to others and dedicated my life to service in the fire bureau. And as the fire chief, I have lives entrusted to me.

What happened last night, when it comes to criminal acts, damaging of property, vandalism of businesses, intentional arson, you have put so many lives in harm’s way.

I want to thank our public safety partners. The city is not burned down because of the collaboration, the training and the dedication of the civil servants of this city. Our members put their lives in harm’s way in order to keep these fires small, in order to save lives.

This was a traumatic experience for everybody. For everyone. But I want people to understand, when we talk about trauma, when we talk about fear, when we talk about nobody is there to protect us, that’s what black people feel every single day, whether you’re going to a grocery store, whether you’re raising a child, whether you’re walking across the street, whether you walk into City Hall, you have already been targeted, you have already been marginalized. You walk in fear because of the color of your skin.

So this is not about one killing or one moment or where we are today. If you really want to help understand a system that we have been living in since the day we got here, see the world through our eyes – through black and brown people, our perspective, because what a lot of felt last night, when it comes to government workers, when it comes to civil servants, when it comes to people who are protected, they felt fear. That’s what our kids feel every day going to school, that they’re not good enough, that maybe if they act out or do something, they are labeled and stamped for the rest of their life. This is a moment, it is a moment of reckoning. It is a moment where we come together and understand that if we go forward, we are no longer going forward in fear and trauma. We are going forward together to create an actual community where respect and dignity are our core values.”


Seattle Fire Chief: ‘I pray for justice’

During a situational update and curfew reminder with the mayor and police chief on Sunday, Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins spoke about his reaction to the protests:

I want to start with George Floyd. And you can put a lot of names to it. But myself, as an African American man, a father of four, a grandfather of two grandsons, every time I see one of these situations, it hits me deeply. And one of the things I pray for, I pray for justice, as the mayor mentioned and Chief Best mentioned. I pray for that for my family and all those out there.

So I want the protesters to know, the ones who actually did protest, your message wasn’t lost; it was real, it was understood. To all those who did destruction and caused fires, we were paying attention to you, too. ….

We hear the message, we know the message, we’re all grieving together.

Watch the full speech and update:

[Next: ‘Do not block fire vehicles’: Fire departments take to social media amid civil unrest]

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