There should be no room for extremist violence in our communities. And yet, there is no painless way of squelching its potential threat once it does seep in. Nowhere was that more painfully clear than a few nights ago inside one of Philadelphia’s suburban town halls.
“You hypocrites!” shouted Justin Megna. His target: the Haverford Township Board of Commissioners, a 5-4 body controlled by Republicans in Delaware County, who had just forced the departure of a firefighter found to have once sought membership in an extremist group, the Proud Boys.
“I have never heard more hate come out of a township than I’ve heard in the past five days,” said Robert Dell. “There has been torches and pitchforks running through this town like this guy was the second coming of Adolf Hitler.”
For days leading to Monday’s announcement that the Bon Air Fire Company had finally accepted the firefighter’s resignation — a move that ended an early-September standoff between the volunteer company and the township that sponsors it — residents had fallen into opposing camps and plunged into ugly incivility. By the time of the meeting that night, critics of the move eviscerated town leaders while the other half of the town, presumably, was rejoicing.
It was shocking. All of it. A revelation of the anger simmering at any time in our age of rage in polarized America.
To revel in the township’s laudably swift action, as defenders have, without gauging the chill of this chasm is to ignore the full danger as extremists become popular even in more mainstream suburban communities. Haverford is an unusual place by 2019 standards: An influx of progressives in recent years has them coexisting in tight, inner-ring suburban quarters with Republicans who once overwhelmingly populated this Delaware County town.
After this scandal, kiss that goodbye.
Megna was among the first to speak after township commissioners opened the floor of their meeting to the public in a packed hall. The township said the Bon Air Fire Company had just accepted the resignation of the firefighter in question, a vice president. The firefighter had been photographed flashing a white nationalist signal, but the fire company initially had refused to accept his resignation. The township had shut down the fire company as leverage.
To Megna, the township’s maneuvers were nothing more than infringements on the firefighter’s freedom of association under the First Amendment. He drew hoots and hollers and loud applause. The township’s maneuvers, he said in a tone of harsh condemnation, were “un-American and contemptible!”
Fifty-five-year-old Dell delivered power with lower volume but profound intensity. It was hard not to give his words some weight.
“I coached him in high school,” Dell said of the firefighter, who’d served for six years before the Proud Boys scandal and the man’s admission that he had sought, but then abandoned, membership into the group. “There’s not a racist bone in that young man’s body. His brother was murdered at a CVS in Chester, defending his coworkers.”
Had this firefighter in good standing been offered counseling or any other alternatives when this first came to light? Dell wanted to know, but officials said nothing. Perhaps they were concerned that saying too much might fuel a legal fight down the road.
“This has torn this town apart,” Dell added.
Local leaders sent an important message that they are in the business, first and foremost, of preserving the integrity of their public institutions. The equal protections enshrined in the 14th Amendment extend to employees in the public sector for that reason and have been largely affirmed by courts over many years.
The Anti-Defamation League has described the Proud Boys as a group that resorts to violence in promoting its ultraconservative agenda. The firefighter acknowledged having pursued membership into the group before eventually distancing himself from them.
There are, however, shades of gray here. Which is why the anger of some residents is not to be dismissed.
“Is there no place for redemption?” one woman demanded to know from the otherwise silent commissioners.
From a purely legal standpoint, also, things do not appear so clear-cut.
“He is a volunteer firefighter who works for a volunteer fire company, which is likely a private entity. As a private entity, they can fire him for any reason they choose, [barring] protected characteristics such as sex, race, religion,” Sara Rose, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told me. “A private business can fire you for saying something they don’t like.”
By the same token, the fire company appears to have a contractual relationship with the township, which as a government entity is obligated under the U.S. Constitution to make sure its employees and its institutions are free from discrimination. Imagine the liability if the town had glossed over this incident, only to have something terrible happen down the road.
The 14th Amendment is why the Philadelphia Police Department has announced plans to fire 15 police officers for making racist or offensive Facebook posts. The government may fire someone for speech if it can show that it has a “stronger interest in preventing this [employee’s] speech than the employee has in making it, or the public has in hearing it,” Rose said.