Ex-Detroit firefighter sues over termination for ‘racially insensitive’ watermelon

Probationary firefighter Robert Pattison was fired for “gifting” this watermelon to a predominately black fire station in Detroit.

Tune into the “Muckraker Report” on 910AM the Superstation from 11-noon on Tuesday for more on this story.

A probationary Detroit firefighter who was terminated for delivering an enormous watermelon wrapped in a pink bow to a predominately black fire station as “a welcome gift” has filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming he was fired because he is white.

The lawsuit by former firefighter Robert Pattison claims he was racially discriminated against because the Detroit Fire Department “would never have discharged a black employee for gifting a watermelon.”

Pattison, who has a checkered employment past, made national headlines when the department fired him on Oct. 5, declaring the watermelon “was deemed offensive and racially insensitive.” Even most of Detroit’s white firefighters defended the firing, and the firefighters’ union declined to take up Pattison’s case.

Watermelons have been used since the 1860s to denigrate black people, who were portrayed in caricatures as impish, lazy, unclean and mindless buffoons. In the 20th century, the vile depictions of African Americans, often with oversized, blood-red lips, raggedy clothes and very dark skin, showed up on postcards, ashtrays, cookie jars, board games, souvenirs and during minstrel shows. When Obama was elected president, photoshopped images of watermelon patches on the lawn of the White House became popular memes, and a Boston Herald cartoonist illustrated the commander in chief brushing his teeth while a man in the bathtub asks, “Have you tried the new watermelon flavored toothpaste?”

Despite the enduring and dehumanizing history, Pattison insisted in an interview with Deputy Chief of Fire Operations Eugene V. Biondo that he did not know a watermelon was  racially insensitive or inappropriate, according to personnel records obtained by Motor City Muckraker. When asked about the pink bow, Pattison said it was a “failed attempt at a joke.”

The lawsuit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court on Jan. 8 claims the fire department violated the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by treating Pattison “differently than black employees.”

“As a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ discriminatory conduct, Plaintiff was harmed and continues to be harmed in that he has suffered economic and non-economic loss including, but not limited to, lost wages, damages to professional reputation, economic distress, outrage and humiliation,” the suit states.

Engine 55’s quarters at 18140 Joy Rd.

Pattison claims it’s customary for new firefighters to gift doughnuts, but he decided to provide Engine 55 with a watermelon “to provide a healthful and economic alternative.”

“Plaintiff harbored no racial animus, discriminatory purpose, or any other negative intention in giving the watermelon as a gift,” the lawsuit states.

Pattison also is suing Fire Commissioner Eric Jones for defamation, saying he “made false and defamatory accusations” in the media “that Plaintiff was a racist and engaged in discriminatory behavior.”

According to internal records and interviews with former co-workers at the fire department and previous EMS jobs, Pattison had a habit of making inappropriate comments.

Trish Dougherty, 41, worked with Pattison on an ambulance for four months and said he slapped a female coworker and was fired from two EMS jobs.

“I told my boss, ‘Get him off my rig,'” Dougherty recalled.

Fire officials said Pattison’s checkered past should have disqualified him from a firefighting job when he applied.

Pattison is seeking back wages, compensation for emotional damage and his job back.

Fire officials declined to return calls about the lawsuit because the city typically doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

When news broke of the firing in October, the overwhelming response from the public was dismissive, vicious and often bigoted. Black firefighters, union leaders and the fire administration were bombarded by angry phone calls, hate mail and vile social media posts after the story went viral and landed on alt-right sites.

The nastiest insults were reserved for black firefighters, who were called snowflakes, sissies, racist cowards, pussies, imbeciles, delicate daisies, oversensitive babies, wusses, Crisco-brained idiots, hypersensitive assholes and spoiled brats. 

Engine 55 also received numerous watermelons in the mail from hecklers.

An online petition calling for Pattison’s reinstatement garnered more than 4,300 signatures and plenty of demeaning comments. One commenter even suggested, “whoever complained should be fired & the Mayor should be removed from office!!”

Susan Borgersrode, who signed the petition, wrote, “Blacks are too touchy about stuff.”

Heidi Rubley added, “I’m guessing these offended firemen don’t stand for the anthem either…. They should be fired for racism….damn!!! Finding anything to fight about…. Or like a bunch of two year olds.”

On a Fox News story about the firing, a commenter suggested,”Maybe the US should send a truckload of watermelons to that station.”

Motor City Muckraker is an independent watchdog funded by donations. To help us cover more stories like this, please consider a small contribution.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.