Reel Legal Beat Exclusive: “Let’s be clear what a white sheet with two eyeholes cut out of it hanging over the workstation of an African American really means.” Lisa Bloom.
When Isiah Washington reported to work at the Sierra Aluminum Company in Riverside, Ca. in April 2015, he hardly thought he would become embroiled in a 21st century David and Goliath struggle with his employer.
Standing a little over six feet tall with a slim build and gentle demeanor, the young African American man, joined by top civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom, told Reel Urban News about a racist experience in the workplace out of the Jim Crow South.
Above his work area, Washington spotted a large white plastic sheet with eyeholes hanging in the air – a frightening reminder of the Ku Klux Klan’s “glory suit.” After he complained, Washington claims in a lawsuit filed against Sierra Aluminum, he was fired.
“We moved across the street to do some work and I moved into a workstation and started working with my partner and I looked up and I see this white sheet hanging over the top of my workstation.”
Speaking softly, Washington says that he was not the only person to see the white sheet object hanging in the air. “I told my partner ‘Look at this.’ Then I stopped working.”
The lawsuit states: ‘The plastic sheet was white in color and it clearly had eyehole cuts to make it appear as a Ku Klux Klan hood, known worldwide as a symbol of racial hatred and terror against African Americans.
‘This white, sharply pointed hood of a full faced sheet with eyeholes hanging, as seen by Washington at his workstation, is the most distinctive feature of the Ku Klux Klan and is known as the ‘glory suit’.”
Washington maintains that when he asked management to remove the sheet he was rebuffed. “I asked for them to take it down and my supervisor Lupe said, ‘Why, why?’ I remember a couple of people coming around and they were giggling. It was like everything just moved in slow motion. And then [Lupe] called his nephew, a forklift driver operator over. They told me to get back to work.”
The lawsuit states that the white sheet remained for another hour before it was removed.
Washington has filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Sierra Aluminum. Bloom was direct in describing the brutal history that blacks associate with a white hood in America.
“Let’s be clear what a white sheet with two eyeholes cut out of it hanging over the workstation of an African American really means,” says Bloom. “It’s a very clear symbol of the KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, which is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the U.S. that specifically terrorized African Americans throughout our history.”
The legal complaint states the white sheet was 20 to 30 feet in the air directly in front of Washington’s workstation. Bloom says the KKK’s white sheet serves a dual purpose. “It’s not just a symbol of overt racism – it’s designed to instill fear. And from what you can see, Isiah Washington even sitting here today, it did instill fear. And it would in any reasonable person.”
Washington began work in 2014 as a packer in a temporary capacity at Sierra Aluminum. According to the lawsuit, Washington became a full-time employee in March 2015, working upwards of 30 to 65 hour each week.
Washington describes his early days as an employee as challenging at best.
“My first couple of days I noticed they worked me real hard. They worked me at a real fast pace trying to make me give up. Because I’m very athletic, I wouldn’t give up. I eventually got very quick. I felt like they moved me around a lot. They tried to challenge me. But I didn’t give up. I got good at my job.”
As a packer, Washington’s duties consisted of manual labor. “We were working with sheet metal. My arm was all scratched up from when I first started. They were moving so fast at a pace I didn’t even know what I was doing.”
According to Washington, the frantic work environment was deliberate. “They were doing it intentionally.”
Washington described his job training at Sierra Aluminum as limited. “They just told me to do this and to do it like that. I just listened. I went in with an attitude if you treat people with respect they will treat you with respect. That’s how I walked into Sierra Aluminum Company. I just kept trying to show respect.”
Washington asserts that after he found the white sheet hanging above his workstation, he was forced to endure derogatory comments in both English and Spanish such as “puto” – a derogatory Spanish term for homosexual.
Described as a mid-sized company, Sierra Aluminum employs a large number of Hispanics and whites. “I was only one of the few African Americans there,” says Washington. “Actually me and this other guy, he was black. We started working there at the same time. We were the only ones. We worked overnight.”
According to court documents, Washington was one of five African American workers out of 500 employees at Sierra Aluminum.
“I think it’s a real concern when a company with several hundred employees that’s a factory has such a tiny, tiny number of African American employees really disproportionate to the African American population,” says Bloom. “I think that’s a red flag for Isiah Washington going into work there. And again, this is a factory job. An entry-level job.”
On June 17, 2015, Washington sustained a small cut on his thumb while working. He applied a band-aid from the factory’s first aid kit and resumed work. Washington explains how the events unfolded.
“One day before we were going home I was rushing to get my job done. Me and my partner, we were putting a bundle together. The next day I remember someone asking me why I was at the medical station. They asked, ‘Are you fine to work? If you have to go home, I’ll have to send you to the doctor.’ I said, ‘No, I’m OK, I can work.'”
So they came back maybe two or three hours later. They pulled me into the office and said, ‘You need to go to the doctor.’ I said this was fine. Then he said I was supposed to ride to the doctor with somebody I didn’t even know. That’s where I had a problem. I told them I would go behind them or they could follow me. I didn’t feel comfortable riding in someone else’s vehicle.
“The doctor looked at my thumb and gave me clearance to go back to work the same day.
“I came back to work the next morning. That’s when they brought me into the office and said I had been terminated for not following company policy.”
With Bloom’s representation, Washington filed a racial discrimination and discriminatory retaliation lawsuit against Sierra Aluminum on January 7, 2016. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, claims that Washington’s civil rights were violated including the right to be free from employment discrimination on the basis of his race.
Washington’s wrongful termination and discrimination suit is not the first of its kind to be leveled again Sierra Aluminum.
According to court documents, Sierra Aluminum entered into a three-year Consent Decree with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in U.S. District Court in August 2007 in connection with a complaint brought by a former employee alleging unlawful retaliation for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.
In December 2009 Sierra Aluminum was again sued by the EEOC in U.S. District Court in conjunction with a complaint by another former employee alleging he was subject to a sexually hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace.
During our video interview, Washington was uneasy as he described his discovery of the white sheet above his workstation.
“This hasn’t been the only incident. There are not a lot of black people there. Sometimes I would have to go home after being assigned to work with other people. They would be so disrespectful to me. It was so bad that I had to leave. I come back the next day, tell the supervisor and they wouldn’t do anything about it.”
Bloom, a veteran civil rights attorney, admits the discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination endured by Washington is tough to swallow.
“In Los Angeles in the 21st century you don’t expect to be talking about the KKK,” says Bloom.
“Not only did Mr. Washington have to endure this and have to work under a KKK sheet hanging over his workstation, he complained about it and shortly after that he lost his job.”
Bloom is confident that there are numerous infractions involved in this case.
“There are a lot of legal violations here. We’re alleging not just racial discrimination but retaliation. Let’s be clear – everyone in the United States has the right to a workplace that’s free of racial harassment and race discrimination. And the right to complain about it. What’s supposed to happen is there is supposed to be a prompt and thorough investigation about the complaint. You punish the perpetrator and you protect the victim, in this case Mr. Washington.”
None of that, says Washington, ever happened.
Look for our video interview with Isiah Washington and attorney Lisa Bloom, posting to ReelUrbanNews.com under Reel Legal Beat in the coming days.
By: Michael Reel / ReelUrbanNews.com