LOS ANGELES – The emotional debate over whether Los Angeles should pay nearly $3 million to a black firefighter who had his meal laced with dog food by white colleagues has put the spotlight on a larger issue that often goes unmentioned: the hazing rituals that are part of a macho culture that is the firefighter's world.
Tennie Pierce, 51, sued the Fire Department in 2005 after colleagues mixed dog food into his spaghetti dinner. Pierce said he suffered retaliation for reporting the incident, verbal slurs and insults by firefighters "barking like dogs."
The case grew more complicated when photos emerged of Pierce engaging in his own pranks — smearing mustard and dumping water on restrained colleagues. He said those activities were consensual, a firehouse tradition to celebrate a promotion or retirement.
The City Council voted 11-1 earlier this month to award Pierce $2.7 million to settle his racial discrimination lawsuit. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took notice and vetoed the award. The council on Wednesday left intact the mayor's veto and trial was set to begin in March.
As word of the settlement and veto became heated topics on the Internet and local talk radio, critics accused Pierce of playing the "race card."
The veteran firefighter responded that his 20-year career was destroyed after he broke a code of silence and spoke out against something he believes was racially motivated and crossed the line of typical firehouse fun.
"This is wrong," an emotional Pierce said earlier this week. "If four black firemen did it to a white fireman, I would stand up."
As people took sides, sociologists and other observers said the incident has focused attention on an insular culture rarely seen outside of the firehouse.
"It's a lot like what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," said anthropologist Jorja Leap, who teaches at UCLA's department of social welfare. "What goes on in the firehouse stays in the firehouse as long the firefighters ride in on their big red trucks and put out the fire."
Occasionally stories do spill out, usually when lawsuits are filed or damages are awarded.
Earlier this year, a black firefighter sued the New York Fire Department after he said someone left a hangman's noose on top of his gear.
Two years ago, the city of Coral Gables, Fla., awarded $10,000 to a woman firefighter who said her male colleagues handcuffed her during a hazing ritual.
And a firefighter who was accused of causing at least $2,500 damage to lockers and gear in Dunedin, Fla., in 2001 said he was retaliating against co-workers who had filled his hat with spaghetti.
Such pranks have been part of the firefighting culture for as long as he can remember, said Charles L. Bose, a retired firefighter who published the book "Fire House Antics" in 2004.
"It ain't gonna go away. It's just so ingrained," said Bose.
The pranks, he said, provide a release for people who consider themselves part of a brotherhood that must deal frequently with danger and tragedy.
"People don't understand what we go through. They have no idea. They just don't," said Bose, who compares the stress and isolation to what U.S. soldiers faced during the Vietnam War.
Most of the pranks he witnessed were harmless, Bose recalled, things like firing a bottle rocket under a bathroom door after someone had gone inside.
But occasionally they rose to a level that could get someone in trouble, and when they did, he said, everyone assumed a code of silence.
Pierce's supporters say that's what happened to him: The joke played on him crossed the line because of the clearly racial connotations they read into it.
"The stereotype of the African-American has often been one of monkey, dog, animal," said civil rights activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.
"Dog food fits in with that racist stereotype of African-Americans that far too many people have," Hutchinson, adding that Pierce was the only target and the only white firefighters took part in the prank.
Leap agreed with Bose that it's hard to break through the cultural barriers of a fire department, whose members bond through hazing.
"Is it impossible to eradicate this?" she asked. "No. But does it take extremely strong leadership and a commitment to change? Yes. And I'm not sure fire department culture — and I don't just mean Los Angeles Fire Department culture — has a commitment to this kind of change yet."