Noose-like rope found at ERDC, union boss says|[08/25/07]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 25, 2007

A rope, resembling a hanging noose knot, was discovered earlier this week by two contractors at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center, said the president of the local federal employees’ union who believes it was level as another in a series of symbols meant to intimidate minorities.

Officials at ERDC say the knot was actually a midshipman’s knot and was used to move air conditioning equipment.

&#8220The contractors use a knot, a modified version of the midshipman’s hitch or taut-line hitch, to lift equipment to the roof,” a statement from Wayne Stroupe, an ERDC spokesman, said. &#8220The knot is very common and is widely used by arborists climbing trees and by campers to secure tent lines.”

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Rudy Smith, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3310, said he was told Monday by &#8220an African-American and a white employee” that the rope had been found at the rear of the headquarters building.

Stroupe said air conditioning contractors left the rope hanging by their ladder while working on the building’s roof.

&#8220An ERDC employee cut the knot off and gave it to the union representative with the apparent misconception that the knot represented a noose,” he said.

Smith, who is a retired ERDC employee, immediately tried to bring it to the attention of Col. Rick Jenkins, commander of the center, and Dr. Jim Houston, director of ERDC, but said he was turned away.

&#8220It seemed like it was not a big deal to them,” he said.

Stroupe said the commander and director are not allowed to talk to any union official.

&#8220Because the Vicksburg installation (Waterways Experiment Station) is just part of the larger ERDC organization, local union representatives are required to work through a designated management official,” he said.

As a result, Smith was contacted Thursday by chief negotiator William P. Grogan, who notified him by e-mail that the matter was being investigated. Director of Public Works David Haulman, who apparently was asked by Jenkins to investigate the rope, recorded his findings, which were included in the e-mail. The five-point description of his investigation said that he contacted the supervisor of &#8220a large contract firm that has an ongoing multiyear HVAC maintenance contract” at the site. He reported that the supervisor told him that his firm, the name of which was not revealed, uses rope to hoist tools and supplies to the roofs of building. Loops in the ropes are tied to secure the materials, he added.

Haulman’s written report said on Wednesday afternoon that the contractor brought the employee into his office to demonstrate the method he used to tie the loop. After the employee showed him the knot, which Haulman said involved several coils around the rope, he asked that the method no longer be used.

&#8220I asked them to alter the method of tying to eliminate multiple coils around the rope, and they readily agreed to do so,” he said. &#8220They both said the entire rope, including the loop, is normally temporarily stored upon the roof of the building they are working upon – out of site from the public – when not in use.”

Haulman returned his results to Jenkins, who said he saw no evidence that the intent of the noose-like rope was to harass or offend any individual or group. He asked that any other evidence be turned over to ERDC security for further investigation.

Jenkins also submitted a written statement about the rope that was found.

&#8220As commander of ERDC, I take very seriously the responsibility of investigating any inappropriate conduct that is reported on ERDC property,” the statement said. &#8220This command has zero tolerance for any form of unlawful harassment in the workplace, whether it is based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability or protected activity.”

Two similar reports were made about 10 years ago, stating a rope resembling a hangman’s noose had appeared on the Halls Ferry Road property.

The first report, according to Stroupe, said that the first rope, apparently discovered in an employee’s desk, was used by someone who was practicing Boy Scouts knots. The second was reportedly used to &#8220secure protective garments while they dried from perspiration during warm weather.”

&#8220ERDC management conducted inquiries into both reports and found no indication that either instance was intended to represent a noose or to intimidate anyone in any way,” Stroupe said.

Smith, who has tried to understand why any of the three ropes were made on federal property, said he doesn’t feel like he’s getting those answers.

&#8220This is the third time. They’re more concerned with trying to find someone to blame – versus finding out what really happened,” he said.

The AFGE, founded in 1932, is the largest federal employee union representing 600,000 federal government workers nationwide and overseas. It has 1,100 local offices.

Smith said investigating the rope that was found is part of his organization’s mission of ensuring a non-threatening work environment for federal employees.

&#8220We don’t care what color, sex or age a person is. We are very sensitive to stuff like that,” Smith said.

The hangman’s noose is often associated with lynch mobs, prevalent in the South after a tense racial climate escalated following the Civil War and into the 20th century.

Stroupe said ERDC, which has 170 permanent black employees, making up 16 percent of its permanent work force, participates in outreach programs aimed at increasing diversity.

&#8220Several of those programs were implemented at WES, including active partnerships with both Jackson State and Alcorn State universities,” he said.

The facility has also received multiple honors as a model federal installation for providing equal employment opportunity.