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San Francisco Construction Workers Said They Found Black Dolls Hung From Nooses

Three African-American construction workers said this week that they were targeted by racial slurs and death threats, including black dolls hanging from nooses in the bathroom, while working on the site of a San Francisco high-rise.

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Mihir Zaveri
, New York Times

Three African-American construction workers said this week that they were targeted by racial slurs and death threats, including black dolls hanging from nooses in the bathroom, while working on the site of a San Francisco high-rise.

The workers — Craig Ogans, Douglas Russell and Don’ta Laury — filed complaints Thursday with the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment against Clark Construction, based in Maryland. The company is building the 43-story tower where the men worked. Facebook is expected to be its major tenant.

The three men were elevator operators on the site in the city’s financial district. Their complaints said they were repeatedly harassed and discriminated against by co-workers, including a threat with a knife, as part of a concerted campaign to drive them off the project.

“It made me feel hurt, angry, scared, fearing for my safety,” Ogans said. “It was an emotional roller coaster for me.”

In an emailed statement, Clark Construction said it “does not tolerate harassment or discriminatory behavior” and had notified law enforcement about the racial harassment when it received complaints.

Grace Gatpandan, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Police Department, said police were investigating nooses found at the site in April as a possible hate crime, though no one had been arrested. She said that was the only time the police were called to the work site.

The company said it held anti-harassment and discrimination training at the site after the complaints and installed security cameras to “deter individuals from acts that are not permitted by policy or law.”

The three men were employed by a subcontractor of Clark Construction, Bigge Crane and Rigging, which was not named in their complaints. A Bigge spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

The three men are being represented by John Burris, an Oakland civil rights lawyer. Ogans and Russell said they were reassigned to different work sites after they reported the incidents. Laury could not be reached for comment, but Burris said he was still working at the high-rise site where the alleged harassment occurred.

Clark representatives said the company would install signs on the project reading — “Give Respect. Get Respect.” — as a reminder to workers that they are entitled to a “safe and peaceful work environment.”

“We are committed to addressing reported instances of harassment and discrimination,” read the statement from the company, which has 4,200 employees across the United States, according to its website.

Burris said the complaints filed this week were a precursor to a lawsuit the men intend to file against the company. They must first receive a “right to sue” notice from the California agency, which Burris said he expects within a week.

At a news conference Thursday, he displayed photos that show racial slurs and death threats scrawled in dark ink, as well as dolls dangling from nooses.

“I’m hopeful,” he said, “that this case sends a message to all construction owners at various construction sites, particularly in San Francisco, showing that they have some kind of responsibility to provide a safe working environment free of hostility.”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group for equality in the workplace, said race-based discrimination and harassment have increased in recent years. Clarke said nearly identical instances of harassment, including nooses and racial slurs, have been reported recently nationwide.

“It aligns with a significant increase in hate crimes and racially motivated hate activity across the country,” she said.

The number of complaints received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has steadily risen to about 9,000 in 2017 from about 6,000 in 1998.

Ogans wrote in his complaint that shortly after he started working as an elevator operator at the construction site in March, co-workers told him to enter a sixth-floor bathroom, where he saw words using a racial slur that encouraged the killing of African-Americans.

In April, Ogans said he found two black dolls hanging by nooses in a bathroom with references to killing him and Russell.

“I saw this horrific sight,” Ogans said. “I would like some major reforms put in place to ensure this stuff never happens ever again.”

Russell said in his complaint that after he started working on the site in February, he saw a Clark Construction employee carrying a noose.

Laury’s complaint said that between August 2017 and February 2018, he was the only African-American elevator operator on site. Co-workers repeatedly asked him, “Why are you here?” and “How did you get a job here?” and said African-American workers don’t “belong” on the site, his complaint said.

“Throughout my time working at this Clark Construction site,” he wrote, “it felt like there was a concerted effort to drive out the black workers.”

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