On the morning of Jan. 28, 2002, a day his attorney would later describe as one of the worst of his life, Sam Davis opened the driver-side door to a city-owned truck as he’d done nearly every morning for 17 years working for the city of Brentwood. The vehicle Davis was preparing to drive was a chipper truck, which sits high enough off the ground that Davis couldn’t see inside the driver’s seat.
When Davis opened the door, an oversized stuffed gorilla fell on top of him, startling him to the point of hyperventilation. At first, Davis thought the gorilla was a dead body. He ran to the cafeteria to see who had played the trick on him and why.
When he returned, the gorilla had disappeared. Davis later saw it riding in the back of Billy Cooper’s truck. One of the gorilla’s hands had been propped up, as if it were waving at the neighborhoods Cooper was driving through. For Davis, who at 65 retired in May, it was another example of racial tension in Brentwood’s public works department. “I said, ‘Why, why are they doing this?’ ” Davis testified in a deposition. “What’s wrong with these people?”
There were other examples too, enough to persuade a federal judge to allow a jury to hear Davis’ case, which he filed with co-worker Mark Pickens, alleging a pattern of racial harassment dating almost 20 years.
There was allegedly liberal use of the n-word, black jokes and at least one supervisor calling Davis “boy.” In 1995, after the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced, Pickens, a 44-year-old meter reader, says he saw several public works employees making a noose that they looped around a beam in their shop. Pickens confiscated the noose, put it in his truck but couldn’t find it when he was prepared to turn it over to the human resources director the next morning.
Pickens has alleged that someone tampered with the brakes of his city-owned truck. Davis claimed nearly a gallon of oil was poured into his toolbox and that someone tied twine around his steering wheel. His ’86 Cadillac was keyed. And both men say they were upset to find a .22-caliber bullet in the locker room where they usually eat lunch. They took it as a warning, but Brentwood’s chief of police, Ricky Watson, who personally investigated the incident, concluded the bullet, which was enclosed in straw and lint, likely fell out of someone’s pocket.
Because of the lawsuit, both sides are precluded from discussing the incidents involving Davis and Pickens. Mayor Joe Sweeney, who has been a Brentwood commissioner for more than 30 years, wouldn’t even say whether Brentwood has conducted sensitivity classes for rank-and-file employees. (Assistant City Manger Kirk Bednar says a seminar was completed just last week on workplace harassment.) City Manager Mike Walker says Brentwood is willing to fight the lawsuit vigorously, which normally means the city won’t settle out of court. “There’s a lawyer involved, so you can draw your own assumptions,” Walker says. “In this society anyone can sue anyone. We have no systemwide [racial] problem, I can assure you.”
One of the difficulties Davis and Pickens will have is proving that the incidents were racial—and not just the ridiculous acts of a bunch of yahoos with too much time on their hands. Billy Cooper, the employee who rode around with the gorilla in his truck, testified he wasn’t trying to be racially insensitive. “I just did it kind of as a joke,” he said. In fact, another employee supposedly put the gorilla in Davis’ truck because it seemed as if Davis liked practical jokes. “Sam used to pick and joke with everybody,” Cooper said.
Another employee, Ken Waddy, whom Davis accused of flicking a pocketknife at him, wound up apologizing to Davis and said he had a habit of opening and closing the knife as compensation for quitting smoking.
Davis and Pickens will also have to fend off accusations alleged against them. Davis’ work partner, Leo Mayne, reported Davis to supervisors for allegedly saying, after hearing a 2003 radio report about a Mississippi gunman on a racist rampage, that “something like that should happen around here.” (Davis denies making the comment.)
Pickens, meanwhile, was fired twice after making angry outbursts. The first occurred when an employee, Mark Ursery, grabbed his buttock. Pickens believes the incident was racially motivated, but other workers testified white employees occasionally also played grab-ass at work.
According to his supervisor, John Grissom, Pickens became belligerent as Grissom tried to mediate the dispute. “No white SOB is going to tell him to shut up and sit down,” Grissom wrote in a memo, quoting Pickens.
Pickens was reinstated, only to be fired last year for threatening a co-worker whom Pickens said was making gorilla gestures.
Five white co-workers told Brentwood administrators that Pickens was mistaken, that nobody was making fun of him. A jury will decide in May if they’re right.