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A Black Rochester firefighter says he had to attend a private party where the Juneteenth holiday was mocked

Jones hug.png
Max Schulte
Rochester firefighter Jerrod Jones hugs his former high school English teacher, Jason Muhammad, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, at a news conference where Jones said he was forced while on duty to attend a party that mocked the Juneteenth holiday.

A legal action has been filed against the city of Rochester and its Fire Department after a Black firefighter said he was pushed while on duty to attend a private party last month that had activities mocking Juneteenth, the federal holiday that recognizes the end of slavery in the United States.

The couple accused of hosting a racist Juneteenth parody party at their palatial East Avenue home have long held positions of stature in greater Rochester, from sitting on the boards of influential organizations to playing supporting roles for professional sports teams and political campaigns.

Jerrod Jones, a 14-year veteran of the department, contends in a notice of claim — often the precursor to a lawsuit — that he and three other firefighters were brought by their supervisor to a private party on July 7, where activities included buckets of fried chicken prominently displayed, an apparent use of that racist trope used to mock Black Americans.

At a news conference on the steps at City Hall led by his attorney, former congressional candidate Nate McMurray, Jones said that it wasn’t easy coming forward with details of what happened. But he said he decided to speak up because he has two children who may one day aspire to be firefighters, “and I don’t want them to have to experience what I experienced.”

Jones noted that "there's a lot of young people on the (firefighting) job today because of me, and they look up to me. So I feel obligated to do the right thing and speak up."

According to the complaint, Jones and three other firefighters were taken to the private party on East Avenue at the urging of their supervisor, Capt. Jeffrey Krywy, during a shift.

Jones said it is not uncommon for on-duty firefighters to attend community events, but he felt concerned because this was a private party.

At that event at 1286 East Ave., according to the complaint, there were two large Juneteenth celebration flags decorating the lawn and near them he saw buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

1286 East Avenue in Rochester
Max Schulte
The exterior of 1286 East Ave., Rochester.

The complaint also said that a woman in a red wig was performing for attendees at the party. She referred to herself as “Rachel,” and the crowd called her “Rachel,” in an apparent reference to Democratic County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, according to the complaint. The legal filing said that the woman danced in a mocking, but sexual manner.

Barnhart, at Thursday's news conference, said that, "reducing me to a sexual object as this party did, that was deliberate. It was to take away my mind, my voice, my credibility, my agency and my humanity."

Jones also said that he could see pictures of local Democratic politicians on stakes across the lawn, including members of the Police Accountability Board and a photo of Councilmember Mitch Gruber, among others.

Jones said that he also recognized the faces of several attendees at the party, including a man who he believes was a senior member of the Rochester Police Department.

Nicholas Nicosia and Mary Znidarsic-Nicosia own the house and are identified in the claim as the party hosts. Znidarsic-Nicosia declined comment.

Jones said he contacted a battalion chief to complain about the incident. He said that chief, George Smith, was shocked by the account and promised immediate action. But Jones said he was assigned to work with Krywy again four days after his report to Smith.

Jones and supporters.png
Max Schulte
Supporters surround Rochester firefighter Jerrod Jones on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, as he announced he filed a notice of claim against the city of Rochester and the Rochester Fire Department.

Jones is currently on leave, and the legal filing said he is suffering emotional distress and fear of retaliation.

The notice of claim calls for emotional distress damages of at least $3 million and compensatory damages of at least $1 million.

City Hall released a statement from Rochester Fire Chief Felipe Hernandez in which he called the allegations “serious” and said the behavior described is unacceptable and “an affront to everyone who works with the RFD and in City Hall.”

The Rochester Firefighters Association issued a statement Thursday, calling the allegations "extremely disturbing."

"Our union has zero tolerance for racist attitudes and behaviors, either on or off our jobs," the statement said. "We will await the findings and details of a full investigation of this matter, before making further comments or taking responsive actions.”

City officials said that Jones’ supervisor has been put on suspension with pay while the internal investigation continues.

A statement released by the Rochester Police Department said that if any members of the department were involved “in these vile allegations,” appropriate disciplinary measures will be taken.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.