When Keith Baraka, a black and gay man from Ohio, moved to San Francisco in 1997, he hoped he had escaped from a lifetime of small-minded prejudice. He did not expect that he would have to hide his sexual identity in San Francisco.
Baraka was especially proud when he found a job as a firefighter and had no complaints when he served at Station 1 at 5th and Folsom Streets, until 1999 then was transferred to Station 18 for three years. At Station 18, at 1935 Orgega Avenue, he experienced some harassment for being gay, and some racist comments as well from his supervisor and he filed an EEO Complaint.
But then in 2006, when he learned that he had been assigned to Station 6 which serves the City’s largely gay district — the Castro — he attached a rainbow sticker to his helmet, anticipating service to his community, it was the fulfillment of a lifetime goal: living an open life, free from deception, dishonesty or artifice. Anyone could see he was a black man, but he had spent a lifetime working, training, saving and sacrificing to be free to disclose his sexual identity honestly.
But from the first day at Station 6, Baraka embarked on a nightmarish series of events as the target of harassment, not just from leadership, but especially from the fellow firefighters at the station. And it was not until he witnessed the maltreatment of the LGBTQ neighbors and residents surrounding the station, that he realized that his coworkers’ intolerant attitudes were deep-seated homophobia and intrenched racism as well.
For many years, when he came into the room, his coworkers turned and left the room, only the other black workers remained. Baraka was called names such as “faggot” and “sissy” as well as “Sambo.”...
The personal mistreatment of Baraka was longstanding. He was shunned for many years, when he came into the room, his coworkers turned and left the room, only the other black workers remained. Baraka was called names such as “faggot” and “sissy” as well as “Sambo.” His name was frequently erased from the assignment board, leaving him at a major disadvantage to perform his duties. Coworkers even broke into his locker, stealing or destroying his belongings. Baraka was singled out for this treatment from within the ranks of his peers and it was further sanctioned by his supervisors in a sustained, though unarticulated, culture at the workplace that encourages discrimination and unfair treatment.
Adding insult to injury, when Baraka asked for help from leadership at the station, hoping somehow to relieve the pressure from coworkers’ behavior, offenders were not disciplined, instead, he was subjected to a series of retaliations. It became apparent that the unspoken tenet at the station, if not at SFFD, was that discriminatory behavior was never to be mentioned. And since Baraka continues to speak out about the discrimination he has experienced first-hand, and as he continues to come to the aid of others who are facing similar discrimination, the disciplinary process continues to victimize him.
Baraka was denied promotions and other employment opportunities at Station 6. Since he has been unable to find fair and equal treatment at the San Francisco Fire Department, and, since Chief of Department, Jeanine Nicholson recently admitted to the fact the department has failed to adequately recruit diverse candidates for employment. And she admitted that barriers to promotion for minority members were issues known to the management when she became Chief. In fact, since the 1988 Consent Decree which declared that “employment examinations for entry-level hiring and promotional decisions unlawfully discriminated against women and minority groups,” was lifted in 1998, that the SFFD has “lost ground.” Testifying to the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee on July 30, 2020 Chief Nicholson said: “we have lost ground from when we had our Consent Decree in place over 30 years ago. We have lost the majority of our African American chiefs in this department. Battalion chiefs, we have very few left, and we’ve lost a step in our recruitment, hiring and advancement.” And she said, "Clearly we are not doing something right, we are not doing a lot of things right."
Angela Alioto, who represents the plaintiff Baraka said "Keith is an avid advocate for civil rights and he complained each time he was treated unfairly. They laughed at him; demoted him," and she said. "Seeing that there is known rampant discrimination at the SFFD, of which management was aware and in which, in some cases, they even participated, Mr. Baraka's chances are excellent.” Alioto said.
"The management of SFFD knew of discriminatory practices within the Department and among managers generally," the complaint states, "as evidenced by the Chief’s public admissions ... but took no remedial action or, if remedial action was attempted, it was insufficient and not supervised to assure compliance." The complaint was filed on January 19, 2021 with the Superior Court of San Francisco for relief under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act in response to the Department’s alleged discriminatory conduct against him.