Peter St. Onge

Too quick to ready, aim, fire

Before we defend Crystal Eschert, let’s spend a moment on ignorance.

Eschert is the former Charlotte fire investigator who was dismissed from her job in October after city officials learned of two Facebook posts she had written a couple of months earlier. The city says those posts were offensive. Eschert says she was fired in retaliation for raising safety concerns about a building the Fire Department wanted to use as a new arson unit center.

For now, let’s deal with the posts.

In the first, Eschert – who is white – wrote this: “White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson ...Where is Obama? Where is Holder? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are Trayvon Martins parents? Where are all the white guys supporters? So WHY is everyone MAKING it a racial issue?!? So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!”

The second post was copied from a site called Law Enforcement Today. “Want to know where racial tension and cultural divide comes from?” it read. “794 law enforcement officers have fallen in the Line of Duty since B.H. Obama took office, with no special recognition from the White House. A man robs a convenience store and assaults a cop; the White House sends three representatives to his memorial service.”

The second post is flatly untrue. The president has honored the lives of fallen officers in writing or in speeches at least six times, according to the website PolitiFact.

As for Eschert’s first post, well, you’ve probably heard it all before. “Why is everyone making it a racial issue?” is a common refrain from those who believe we wouldn’t have racial tension if blacks just stopped complaining about it.

The answer, which many don’t want to hear, is this: For those who don’t have lighter skin, you can’t escape race. Life is about the documented reality of your race factoring into the loans and housing and education you get. It’s about being stopped by police, followed by security, perceived to have ill intent – just because you are young and black.

So to wonder out loud why all these black people keep bringing it up is to show you aren’t paying attention. Quite possibly, it’s a willful ignorance.

But is it grounds for firing?

Let’s allow that the city, like private companies, has some say about what happens in the private space that is employees’ social media posts. Let’s also allow that what you do and what you say can negatively impact the place you work. If you run your mouth on Twitter and someone complains about it, you’ll probably get called to the glass offices for a talk.

But like any employer, the city should understand how drastic a step firing is.

That understanding might be one more casualty of the digital age. Social media have exponentially increased how often people call for other people to be fired. It’s a knee-jerk thing now, so common that we’ve become desensitized to what it actually is – a person losing an income, a livelihood, a means of supporting a family, for a mistake.

Sometimes that’s justified. But is it with Crystal Eschert? Her comments are no different than what you’d hear on mainstream television – or read in a letter to the editor. Yes, she stepped in it some by using the word “thug,” which has become a more delicate substitute for a slur we all know. But she recovered somewhat by suggesting thugs are not defined by race, religion or sex.

And while it’s not unreasonable for city officials to think those Facebook posts could harm the Fire Department’s reputation, that damage easily could have been repaired with a lesser punishment. Suspend her for a week. Dock her paycheck. Make it all very public.

Instead, officials callously overreacted, so much so that retaliation seems like a credible explanation. In the end, Crystal Eschert was guilty of insensitivity – and yes, ignorance – but Charlotte is doing a lot more damage to itself than her remarks ever could.

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