YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

John Wayne Life-Size Cutout Gets Firefighter in Flap With Boss

Race: Second incident over display of icon may be sign of morale problems, county fire chief says, vowing action.


For the second time in three months, the image of John Wayne has gotten mixed into a stew of racial resentments and labor-management tensions in the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

A white firefighter filed a union grievance this week against an African American battalion chief, alleging that he was harassed by the chief after he put a 6-foot cardboard cutout of Wayne in the recreation room of the Palmdale station.

Dozens of posters or cutouts of the rugged screen legend have been appearing in county firehouses after a dispute over a Wayne poster erupted in September at the Carson station, a union official said.

The Carson and Palmdale disputes pitted a white firefighter against a black supervisor. Many in the department, black and white, union and management, say that the issue cuts across racial and labor-management lines. Wayne's image has become embroiled in white resentment of affirmative action as well as skirmishes between rank-and-file workers and their bosses.

"This is bigger than John Wayne," said Brent Burton, a member of the Stentorians, an association of black firefighters. "This is union-management and race."

County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman, who said he was unaware of the Palmdale incident, acknowledged that the whole ruckus over images of a dead movie actor may reveal other morale problems within his department. He said he has set up panels of outside consultants and firefighters to deal with the issue.

Some black firefighters call Wayne a symbol of bigotry, pointing especially to a Playboy magazine interview in May 1971 in which Wayne said he believed blacks were not yet capable of handling leadership roles.

"I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility," Wayne, then 63, told the writer.

It is "a slap in the face" to put Wayne's picture in the workplace, said Willie Dwer, 38, a black fire inspector in Arcadia.

The pro-Wayne contingent says the posters and cutouts contain no racial insults, that they are based on Wayne's long reputation as an icon of rugged American individualism--the kind of guy who would not be pushed around by his boss.

Wayne's image first became tangled in firehouse tensions in September, when Battalion Chief Daniel Scott, who is black, removed an 8x10 photo of the movie star that had hung for 20 years in the Victoria Street station in Carson.

Many firefighters were incensed. Although Freeman ordered the picture reinstated, their union filed a grievance, alleging that Scott had exceeded his authority.

The next incident occurred at Fire Station 24 in Palmdale, where Capt. Al Schriver had placed the life-size Wayne cutout in the recreation room.

Battalion Chief Ollie Linson, who supervises stations in the area, pulled him into a station office Oct. 13 and began questioning Schriver about the cutout, Schriver said.

Although Linson, an African American, did not order the cutout removed, Schriver, who is white, filed a grievance, alleging "continued harassment," such as changing his parking space.

Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this story.

Los Angeles Times Articles