Fire dept. boss: A’dam mayor laughed hard at racist joke in bigotry complaint; City hall denies

Fire truck at the port of Amsterdam
Fire truck at the port of Amsterdam Photo: nilaya/DepositPhotos

In a radio interview with Amsterdam fire brigade commander Leen Schaap about systemic racial and gender bias in the fire department, Schaap claimed that Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema found a common racist joke in the fire department "funny" and "hilarious". Halsema's office disputed Schaap's claim. Schaap said to radio program This American Life that the joke in question involves the a racial slur often made against people of color in the Amsterdam fire department.

Schaap said white firefighters at one point persisted in calling one of their black colleagues by the name "Ger," so that they could then disagree with him by saying, "Nee, Ger." Putting the two words together produces a homophone that sounds identical to the Dutch version of the N-word. "Ger" is not the firefighter's actual name nor a nickname he previously used.

According to Schaap, Halsema repeated the joke laughing while talking to him. "The mayor laughed about this and said, 'This is really funny. I find this extremely hilarious,'" Schaap said in the radio chat. "She laughed very loudly. And for me, that was really a pivotal moment, in which I realized, I am fighting against all this, and I am dealing with a mayor who thinks this is funny."

Schaap said that the conversation with Halsema "shocked" and dissapointed him, because he was specifically appointed to fight a culture of exclusion and racism within the fire department.

Halsema's office denied Schaap's account to This American Life, saying that the mayor only repeated the firehouse story to describe "intolerable behavior that's not always recognized as such by firefighters."

The mayor's office also provided newspaper AD with different version of events. "Mayor Halsema knows the joke and has repeated the joke", her spokesperson said. "Because it is an example of humor that may seem harmless to a joker, but at the same time can be experienced as particularly offensive by someone else. It is a form of dormant racism. Joke-makers don't always realize that. So it is precisely these types of examples that help with discussions about corporate culture and racism in the fire brigade."

Schaap was appointed commander of the Amsterdam fire department by deceased mayor Eberhard van der Laan in the spring of 2016. He was given the task of breaking through the "white man culture" in the barracks. In The American Life, Schaap said that he found an isolated organization in which Moroccan men are sometimes called 'rats', Surinamese men are called 'monkeys', a Turkish man was nicknamed Bin Laden, and men watch porn in the evening while their female colleagues are in the room. 

The commander acted strongly against firefighters accused of racism and sexism, which was not well received within the fire brigade. Schaap encountered great resistance in the workplace and even received death threats from his staff. Last year Halsema had the situation in the fire department investigated by former general Peter van Uhm. He concluded that there was a lack of "mutual trust between the corps leadership and the bulk of people in operational service". According to Van Uhm, it is time for a new phase in which connection is the main focus.

After that report, Halsema informed Schaap that she was looking for another chief for the fire department. Schaap will step down on October 1st. He will be succeeded by Tijs van Lieshout, who was fire department commander in Noord-Brabant. 

"Let there be no misunderstanding: the modernization of the fire brigade has the highest priority and racism and discrimination are not accepted", Halsema's spokesperson said to AD. "On that point, Leen Schaap has achieved important results. The safety management continues this line and the new fire brigade chief also received and accepted this assignment."