The hardest arguments to resolve are the ones where both sides are right. That’s the problem with the recent spate of racial slurs broadcast on Chicago Fire Department radios. The city’s minority communities are rightfully disturbed about the incidents, while white firefighters feel they’re being blamed for the actions of a handful of complete morons.

Last week the City Council chambers became a perfect microcosm of the whole sorry mess. Four indisputably heroic firefighters, all white, were at the March 10 meeting to be honored. They sat in the same room where seven days earlier minority aldermen had verbally blasted the fire department during a committee hearing about the radio scandal. Alderman Billy Ocasio had told fire commissioner James Joyce that he wasn’t sure the fire department, which is almost 70 percent white, would protect minorities, adding, “I went home last night and checked all of the batteries in my smoke detectors.”

Lieutenants Dan Mullaney and Kevin Hicks, firefighter Peter O’Sullivan, and firefighter paramedic Keith McDermott were surely aware of all this as they sat in the chambers listening to congratulatory speeches from various aldermen. They looked even more grim and uncomfortable than police officers and firefighters usually do when they’re being held up for praise.

Afterward they ventured into the large room adjoining the council chambers, where aldermen and their aides were mingling around a spread of Saint Patrick’s Day treats. As some reporters interviewed the firefighters about the racial slurs and the aldermen, other reporters interviewed aldermen about the racial slurs and the firefighters.

Reporters jammed around Ed Smith, head of the council’s black caucus. At the earlier committee hearing Smith had said firefighters don’t care as much about causing property damage in black neighborhoods and feel they can treat blacks “as if they’re animals.” Smith didn’t back off from those statements, though he did say “there are a lot of great firemen on the fire department.”

Meanwhile someone asked Lieutenant Mullaney whether he thinks about the race of people who might be in a burning building. “We go in, we save ’em,” Mullaney replied in a clipped voice. “I’ve been working in a black neighborhood for 22 years, never had a thought about who was in there, what their race was. Just go to work and do our best.”

It’s sad, Mullaney acknowledged, that these racial slurs are tarnishing the fire department’s reputation. “But like the City Council–should they be embarrassed about the [aldermen] who went to prison?” he said. “I don’t call them all criminals. Same way, we’re not racists. There’s a small fraction in every community, every society. They’re knuckleheads.” Of course the firefighters didn’t help their credibility by electing a union president who once appeared in blackface to protest affirmative action.

So Alderman Smith and the firefighters were still divided as neatly as the green-and-white icing on the cupcakes that covered the table standing between them. It’s not terribly difficult to see why.

Alderman Smith spoke at the February City Council meeting when the aldermen approved a resolution calling on U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft to investigate the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till. Till was killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Two men acquitted of the murder later admitted they did it. It’s believed as many as ten other people may have been involved. Till’s case became a flash point for the civil rights movement when his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, had his mutilated body brought back to Chicago for an open-casket wake.

To many black Chicagoans 1955 seems not so long ago, Mississippi not so far away. Smith told the council about his own childhood in Mississippi, his cousin Eddie, and Eddie’s friend Henry. Henry had looked at a white woman. “And when they found them walking down the road, they took both of ’em because they couldn’t kill Henry and leave Eddie,” said Smith. “So they took the two of them. Took these kids and beat them all night. Tied them to a barn and went to work. The next day, came back and continued to beat them and kill them. And then they cut them up with a chain saw and dropped them in the Mississippi River. What kind of life is this? This is America!”

That is Alderman Smith’s reality. Lieutenant Mullaney’s reality is filled with many days similar to the one for which he was being honored, last December 26. Mullaney’s Truck 15 was going for gas on the south side when the crew spotted smoke. They investigated and found a CHA low-rise with fire pouring out of its second-floor windows.

Mullaney called for backup, but ran into the building immediately after learning two children might be inside. He was carrying the first child out when the fire flashed over him and he made a quick move to escape, knocking off his helmet. The helmet, which Mullaney brought to the council meeting, was black and misshapen, like a melted piece of Styrofoam. He went back for the second child, and Hicks helped carry her out. Then Mullaney, Hicks, O’Sullivan, and McDermott resuscitated the children. The firefighters never mentioned it, but the children were black.

On a lighter note: Alderman Ed Burke always speaks first when the council honors police and firefighters. He’s famous as the council’s historian, and for being Irish. Without fail Burke wears a green tie and green pocket handkerchief to meetings. He carries a dark green leather briefcase and even doodles with a green pen.

In his speech Burke pointed out that all four firefighters being honored were Irish, and went on to recall nine Irishmen arrested in 1848 and sentenced to death for treason. International protests caused Queen Victoria to commute their sentences to banishment to Australia. In 1874, Burke recounted, the queen learned that the newly elected prime minister of Victoria was one of the banished men, and she gave orders to follow up on the others. Seven of them turned out to hold political offices–one was territorial governor of Montana.

Alderman Burton Natarus couldn’t let that pass. “Now as far as Alderman Burke’s story of the Irish, it really involves only one thing,” he declared. “That the Irish have a special talent and a special expertise of finding their way into government and controlling it.”

Mayor Daley giggled and held up one of the green-and-white cookies that had been passed around. “Thank you for the cookie!” he said.

Th he aldermen were passing around an interesting document during the meeting–a list from the Board of Elections of deputy registrars affiliated with the Hispanic Democratic Organization. Deputy registrars are empowered to register voters.

The HDO, of course, is the powerful political organization that gets out the vote for Mayor Daley. Many non-HDO aldermen are unhappy about the group’s influence at City Hall. It can claim three aldermen, though it would rather not claim Angelo Torres, the former gang member who ran the Hired Truck Program and was fired in January after being charged with extortion. It can also claim 1,312 deputy registrars, out of about 8,000 associated with 400 groups. Only the Lakefront Independent Democratic Organization and Rainbow/PUSH come close, with 1,082 and 812 respectively.

One alderman looking over the list noticed a fun fact: a bloc of 24 names beginning with Mc, starting with McBride. How long before the Irish take over the Hispanic Democratic Organization?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.