Broad Channel stays silent after blackface case ruling

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Mum's the word in Broad Channel following last week's ruling by a federal judge in Manhattan who said the city wrongfully fired two firefighters and one police officer for wearing blackface on a Labor Day float in the island community in 1998.

Few residents had anything to say in response to Judge John E. Sprizzo's decision that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani illegally fired former Police Officer Joseph Locurto and former Firefighters Jonathan Walters and Robert Steiner because the then-mayor objected to the content of their speech, which violated their First Amendment rights.

Locurto, Walters and Steiner, all of whom are white, participated in a Labor Day parade with a float called "Black to the Future, 2098," where they displayed watermelons and fried chicken containers and made a mockup of James Byrd, a black man dragged to death in June 1998 in Texas.

The reaction to the ruling from most people standing in front of the American Deli on West 10th Road and Cross Bay Boulevard Tuesday ranged from "I was not here last week " to "I don't know anything about that."

And if some denizens of the predominantly white community between Howard Beach and the Rockaway Peninsula agreed to comment, they wanted to remain anonymous.

Several restaurant and bodega employees who were minorities would not answer a reporter's questions and said they were not even aware that the incident had taken place despite the media blitz surrounding the controversial float back in 1998. About 15 people were asked to comment on the case.

One woman, however, said she agreed with Sprizzo's ruling.

"I think this is America, they should be allowed to do what they want," Cheryl Tenebruso, a former Howard Beach resident who moved to Broad Channel eight months ago said.

One 17-year-old who grew up in Broad Channel said he thought the trio had gone too far in tying the effigy of Byrd to the back of a pickup truck. He said, however, that most people were not talking about the incident anymore despite last week's ruling and that people wanted to move on.

"I don't even care anymore," he said. The teenager, who wished to remain anonymous, said he believed it was right for the city to fire Locurto, Walters and Steiner.

Giuliani had contended he dismissed the three city employees because he feared civil unrest if he did not immediately remove them from the police and fire departments. The former mayor testified in January during the non-jury trial along with former Police Commissioner Howard Safir and former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen.

All three former city officials and the city were defendants in the case.

Sprizzo said in his decision that the three men were fired because of what they said during the parade "and for reasons of public perception and the political impact expected to flow" from the incident.

A senior citizen who grew up in Broad Channel said very few people in Broad Channel were discussing the 1998 incident today. He did say, however, that everyone has an opinion on the matter that they will keep to themselves.

"If they (people) have feelings, they probably haven't said anything," he said.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156

Updated 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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