FORT LAUDERDALE — The recent display of a noose in a city facility did not violate any laws, and the incident will not be investigated as a hate crime, city of Fort Lauderdale officials have determined.
“Yes, OPS [Office of Professional Standards] brought the matter to the attention of the Police Department,” city spokesman Chaz Adams explained in a March 1 email to the South Florida Times. “The Police Department determined that without evidence of criminal intent, there is no criminal component.”
The incident in question surrounds a city mechanic who is serving a 30-day suspension without pay for hanging a noose in a public works facility.
Leslie “Les’’ Vargas, 64, of North Lauderdale, a utilities mechanic, has been repairing electric motors and industrial water pumps in the city’s water plants and well fields for over 22 years.
The Feb. 2 incident involving Vargas happened in the city’s central maintenance shop at a public works facility at 4250 NW 10th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale.
Efforts to reach Vargas have been unsuccessful.
Vargas earns an annual salary of $58,947.20, and also serves as a crew leader who supervises other employees, including African Americans. Many African Americans associate nooses with segregation-era lynching and racial intolerance.
Noose incidents have been on the increase in recent years around the country, particularly in the aftermath of the so-called Jena Six case that unfolded in Jena, La. in 2006. That controversy began after black students sat in an area that was unofficially reserved for whites in the courtyard of Jena High School. The next day, nooses were found hanging from a tree in that area, setting off several confrontations between black and white students, both on school grounds and off campus.
Noose incidents have occurred in South Florida as well. On Feb. 14, 2008, a noose was hung at a school lunch table near an African-American student.
The incident at Somerset Academy, a charter school in Pembroke Pines, attracted widespread attention after Moremi Akinde, now a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, took a stand against it. As a result, the Florida NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Florida Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the issue.
Anti-bias and diversity education workshops took place at the school as a result.
The students involved in hanging the noose, who remain unidentified, were suspended one month after the incident.
Civil rights law experts say that simply hanging a noose does not necessarily constitute a hate crime.
“I don’t know if there is a hate crime for just hanging a noose without some other criminal act,” said labor and civil rights attorney Randy A. Fleischer. “The noose is evidence of racial bias and animus, but I don’t know if there is a crime.”
Fleischer recently won a determination from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), stating that the civil rights of his client, Vernon Marquis, were violated after a noose was left hanging in his workplace in 2008, and that it was not removed even after he complained on May 30, 2008.
This is not the first race-related complaint that has been filed against Vargas. He was also accused of having a dark-colored doll or gorilla hanging from a noose in the workplace in 2007, but those allegations could not be substantiated, city officials said.
On the morning after Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first African-American president, Vargas lowered the American flag in front of the city facility where he works to half staff, apparently in protest of the election results. He was issued a counseling slip over that incident.
In addition to being required to take sensitivity training, Vargas voluntarily wrote an apology.
Vargas’ co-workers say they never use knots in the shop, and that they believe the suspension does not go far enough.
An email distributed by one of Vargas’ supervisors immediately after the incident was reported accepts his explanation of what happened.
“I do not believe the employee bears any ill will or malice toward any other employees,” Public Works Chief Mechanic Steve Roberts Jr. wrote in a Feb. 2 email that was sent to Public Works Department officials. “But many of his co-workers were offended by his actions and I am requesting an informational meeting on this matter.”