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ATF's "good ol' boys'

Published Oct. 4, 2005

More than 300 people attended an outdoor retreat last spring in the beautiful hills of Tennessee. It was a fine affair, complete with camping, free beer, delicious food, good music and, of course, the camaraderie of buddies and colleagues.

But the event, dubbed the "Good Ol' Boys Roundup," had an ominous side.

Many participants wore T-shirts with Martin Luther King Jr.'s face behind a target, and others wore T-shirts emblazoned with O. J. Simpson in a hangman's noose. Racial slurs were everywhere. Near the park entrance, for example, a sign warned: "Nigger Checkpoint." Another read, "Is there a Nigger in your Car?" And music, peppered with the word "nigger," filled the air. The most popular item, though, was the special "Nigger Hunting License" that was distributed to everyone.

Now, guess who the participants were: All were white men, all were either local cops or federal agents. At least six still are active members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Twelve others are retired ATF agents, and a few of them are suspected of helping to organize the outdoor retreat, which has been held since 1980. To their credit, two of the active ATF agents left the scene when they saw and heard the racism.

The implications of this activity are almost too frightening to ponder. We have officers of the law, all sworn to protect the lives of citizens _ including African-Americans _ participating in a racist affair. How many of these officers and agents have had assignments in black neighborhoods? How many are in a position to hire and fire black people?

"It's scary," said Ronald Noble, Treasury undersecretary for enforcement. "People who engage in this sort of activity should give up their badges."

Absolutely. John Magaw, director of ATF, said the bureau has a policy of "zero tolerance" for all forms of discrimination. That may be true, but, at this very moment, ATF is facing sexual harassment, age discrimination and race discrimination lawsuits. Apparently, the "zero tolerance" policy is not working.

A spokeswoman for the approximately 300 black agents in the race discrimination suit said that the racism at the retreat simply is a manifestation of a widespread problem at the agency. She said black agents routinely are "put up front to do the most dangerous work, the most time-consuming and low-paying work and assignments that don't count toward career advancement."

ATF officials argue that the bureau has made great progress in rooting out prejudice. But that claim is hard to believe when, time and again, top officials and rank-and-file agents are accused of bigotry. When black agents first filed suit, Michael Riselli, one of their attorneys, said: "It's pretty striking and significant that you've got an agency that from time to time gets called upon to help in civil rights cases . . . that doesn't handle its own problems in that area."

The time has come for Magaw to clean house, to round up all of the "Good Ol' Boys." The policy of "zero tolerance" for discrimination should not be mere words on paper. It must become standard operating procedure. Nothing else is acceptable.