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The large hangman's noose hanging in an engineering room at Denver Health Authority was the final straw for Don Atkinson. The African-American grounds worker says he had been subjected to more than a year of passed promotions, racially derogatory remarks and hostile co-workers when he encountered the rope.
"As far as that department is concerned, nothing would surprise me," says Vivian Stovall, a Denver Health employee and the new president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 158. "That department is a cesspool of problems. I think there are some mean-spirited people there."
Atkinson began working for Denver Health in May 1996 as a utility worker assigned to outdoor grounds work. The first few months on the job were fine, he says, but a pattern of bad behavior soon emerged. Colleagues would demean him as a "lazy nigger," and when Atkinson complained to supervisors, he says he was told to suck it up and forget about it.
Atkinson at first tried to make the best of it. "I just said, 'I've been through this so many times, and people resented me because I can start at the bottom and work my way up pretty quickly. I wanted to be yards and grounds supervisor," he says.
Problems escalated in September 1997, Atkinson says, when a co-worker placed a black doll inside a health-authority pickup truck. He says the doll was a figurine of Junkyard Dog, a popular black wrestler. The doll was hung by a shoestring over the cigarette lighter, and its face and crotch were burned.
"I'm still under the assumption it was meant for me," says Atkinson. "I used that truck for collecting the trash."
Atkinson complained to management, and on December 19, 1997, he received a letter from Steve Adriaanse, chief of employee services at Denver Health. "As a result of our investigation, we identified sufficient evidence to confirm your allegation," Adriaanse wrote. The individual who planted the doll was fired.
But for almost ten years, there had been a more contentious, and larger, noose hanging in a room where keys to the rest of the health authority campus were kept. The noose had been made as a prank by a Hispanic worker. "He said he made the noose as a joke, 'to hang myself when this job gets too crazy,'" according to one ex-employee.
Some employees say no one--not even black employees--found the noose offensive. Atkinson says there were several smaller nooses in this room, and a black doll was hung from one.
While Atkinson says he complained to Director of Engineering Ved Varma and other managers about the large noose as early as September 1996, nothing happened until this past summer. That's when word of the noose got out to a black Christian radio talk show in town. James Walson, a painter in the engineering department who is of black and Japanese descent, says he found the noose offensive and brought it to the attention of the station. Walson says plenty of people complained about the rope but nothing happened because "management doesn't care."
The resulting talk-show commentary came on the heels of newspaper accounts of nooses found at a Conoco office in Commerce City and at a Roadway Express loading dock in Aurora. Those nooses appeared to be planted specifically to harass black workers at those sites.
Atkinson and other black employees kicked around the idea of a class-action lawsuit. Meanwhile, the health authority launched another investigation. The noose was removed, and spokeswoman Stephanie Denning says the authority disciplined four people, Varma among them. Management had placed him on three-week paid leave when the investigation began; he was later suspended without pay for one week for failing to remove the noose.
Worried that the incident would jeopardize his attempt to join the United Nations Peace Corps (an organization of professionals with expertise in particular fields) for a stint in Africa next year, Varma filed an appeal with the city's Career Service Authority. An East Indian of African birth, Varma wrote in the appeal that his cultural upbringing prevented him from knowing the racial connotations of a hangman's noose. "The noose has been there since 1990, when I came," says Varma. "So I didn't know it was significant."
"It's hard for me to imagine in '98 that anyone would not understand the cultural significance of a hangman's noose," says Stovall. "However, if you asked me if I thought Ved Varma was a racist, I could not say yes to that."
Nevertheless, Varma wasn't taking chances. He submitted questionnaires to several black employees who had promised to vouch for him if he had problems securing the UN post. Ironically, the only man who filled out Varma's survey was Don Atkinson.
On it he wrote, "I did mention the hangman's noose to him, back in 1996, but I never requested him to have it removed." And to the last question,which asked if Varma would be able to do his Peace Corps work "without racial or ethnic prejudice," Atkinson responded, "Yes, I find Mr. Varma to be a fair person."
Several days after the questionnaire was completed, however, Varma fired Atkinson. According to both Atkinson and Varma, Atkinson's dismissal arose after a brief shoving match with another employee that boiled down to the two men bumping shoulders and shouting profane threats at each other. The incident crossed the health authority's violence-in-the-workplace threshold, and both men were fired.
Atkinson thinks he was fired because he had complained so much about the noose. "To me, it was outlandish," he says. "At the same time, it was an opportunity for people to have their revenge."
Some in the department say the only real problem in engineering was Atkinson himself. They suggest the 46-year-old was a "problem child" who hyped the noose affair strictly to try to win a settlement in court. "I think they should just let it go," says a black employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "With Don Atkinson, that's a bunch of bullshit and crap."
"Donald never found that noose offensive," says a white employee. "Donald was never up in the parts room anyway. Nobody thought anything about this. Basically, Donald was unsatisfied because he wasn't getting his work done."
"I always got my work done," Atkinson responds. He says that while other black workers talked about using the noose as a path to payday, he wasn't among them. "If that was the case, I'd have gone and filed suit the day they strung up the doll."
One thing is certain: The name-calling and hurt feelings reflect the poor morale employees say has set in at Denver Health ever since it changed from being a city department to a private, self-sustaining agency in January 1997.
Once the switch took place, employees were divided among those who opted to remain city employees and those who decided to work as employees of the health authority. City employees had more protection from being fired, but health-authority employees had more flexibility in retirement programs and benefits.
Former engineering-division supervisor Fred Kessler took advantage of a retirement program before the authority took over.
"As far as the hospital itself, there are morale problems," Kessler says. "I think management figured there would be. Employees felt disempowered because they didn't have any say in the decision."
Kessler adds that bad morale wasn't created by the new authority alone. He says the life-and-death medical atmosphere tends to filter through the institution.
Adriaanse thinks that morale is "fairly stable. I think you'll have areas of discontent, but overall, we have a good workforce." But discontent appears to breed in engineering, a department of some fifty people who don't seem to like each other.
The black employee who requested anonymity acknowledges that Atkinson may have been the victim of racial epithets. "It's conceivable, because he is black and he makes himself really unlikable. If you're gonna be abrasive and uncooperative and just a piece of shit, nobody's gonna like you."
However, the employee adds, "there's a lot of hard feelings in engineering. Ved doesn't get a whole lot of respect. It could be that he's a little tiny brown person."
Some employees say Varma has a tough time with both management and his subordinates. "He is a wimp," says Don Guthrie, a former foreman. "He's got no backbone. He talks a good game about discrimination and rights, but then says, 'I can't help you.'"
"He didn't fight for me," Atkinson says. "He was always walking around saying he was for the minorities. But he would never fight for any of us. The consensus is that Ved is out for Ved."
Stovall, though, defends Varma. "He has not been allowed to direct his own department," she says. And Kessler, Atkinson's old boss, adds, "A lot of Ved's problem is he's only a director. He has people to report to. He can only go so far."
As for Atkinson, he has twice visited Butch Montoya, manager of the city's Department of Public Safety, and he delivered a letter to the doorstep of Mayor Wellington Webb, who lives nearby, but has heard nothing back. He's also contacted the NAACP, but the organization's legal counsel, Anne Sulton, says his complaint has not yet been investigated. An appeals hearing over his termination is scheduled for January. Meanwhile, he's getting ready to start a new part-time job.
Atkinson acknowledges that the nooses were removed and that he never saw them again, but he says management was never able to control the behavior of his co-workers. "I don't think they really cared," he says.