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Brookline To Pay $11 Million To Former Firefighter Who Sued For Racial Discrimination

BROOKLINE (CBS) - Gerald Alston spent years in and out of court fighting to prove he was silenced and retaliated against for complaining about racism. This week, more than a decade after the initial dispute, the former Brookline firefighter finally won a multi-million-dollar settlement.

Town officials say the $11 million settlement is the largest in Brookline's history.

"I said in the beginning it wasn't about the money," Gerald Alston said. "I think being compensated for 11 years of grief yeah, but it doesn't make it right at all."

Alston says the deal recognizes the harm done. But the culmination of an 11-year public and painful saga was not what he expected.

"I went through 11 years of uncertainty, I went through 11 years of false promises, I went through 11 years of not knowing what tomorrow was going to bring," Alston told WBZ's Anaridis Rodriguez Wednesday.

Gerald Alston
Gerald Alston (WBZ-TV)

Late Tuesday night, Brookline Town Meeting Members overwhelmingly approved the funding, and agreed the best option was to take out a loan.

Debate lasted nearly three hours and yielded a vote of 186-28, more than the 2/3 majority needed to pass the motion -- first introduced by the town's select board.

"That we've only reached this point after 11 years of protracted agony for Mr. Alston, protracted disgrace for the town of Brookline and protracted litigation for all the parties involved it's an absolute shame," said Brookline Select Board's Vice Chair Raul Fernandez. "This settlement is part of repairing that harm and it's essential for us to earnestly begin to look inward as a community and do the necessary work in building a more equitable and inclusive culture for everyone who lives in, works in, or visits Brookline."

There were objections. "Racism has no place in Brookline, but I don't see how an $11 million dollar settlement could be appropriate or fair, in relation to the merits of the case that remains and town's other important needs. Or be particularly meaningful in fighting against racism," said Town Meeting Member Gil Hoy.

Alston says it's that opposition that proves there's still a lot of work to be done.

"It starts with individuals. I'm not expecting the world to change or Brookline to change overnight. But I'm expecting for people to sit down and say, 'we have a problem.' We have to have these hard conversations," Alston said. "I'm hoping that this is beginning of a serious dialogue."

We first met Alston in 2019, nine years after his supervisor, then Lt. Paul Pender, inadvertently left him a voicemail saying the n-word. Alston reported the incident and eventually ended up suing the town. He and a team of lawyers from the Brookline Justice League spent years in court rooms fighting to prove how certain town officials and members of fire department retaliated against Alston. They say one example is Pender's promotion following the initial dispute. Pender was also allowed to retire. But Alston was fired on claims he was unfit for duty.

By April of 2021, Alston's case had made it to the Supreme Judicial Court. The decision found Brookline was wrong to fire Alston and "responsible for the intolerable workplace conditions," that rendered him unfit to work. Alston's lawyer Brooks Ames says the high court ruling became the benchmark.

"The standard was really set by the Supreme Judicial Court," Ames said. "I think the overall message sent by a settlement like that is that you have to take racism seriously if you're an institution. Because the way we saw it, the way Gerald and I saw it, is that we're setting a price here. What we do here is going to matter for more than just Gerald Alston and Brooks Ames and the town of Brookline. This is telling municipal employers that you could be on the hook for a million a year."

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