A former guard-in-training at Airway Heights Correction Center said he was fired for wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt to work, according to a federal lawsuit.
After his termination, Enow-Tambong Agbor-Baiyee, who is Black, was told he did not “match the values” of the Department of Corrections, according to the suit.
Agbor-Baiyee, in his lawsuit against the DOC in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, alleged he experienced racial discrimination and retaliation.
Susan Biller, a department spokesperson, said in an email she could not comment on pending litigation but confirmed Agbor-Baiyee’s five weeks of employment.
Airway Heights hired Agbor-Baiyee on May 11, according to the lawsuit. During his six-week correctional officer training, an instructor wore a Police Lives Matter shirt. The next week, the new corrections officers were asked to complete staff evaluations, according to the suit.
In his evaluation, Agbor-Baiyee wrote the instructor’s T-shirt was “inappropriate.” The corrections department did not respond to the new officer’s complaint “in any way,” the suit says. Agbor-Baiyee said after filling out the evaluation, he started experiencing retaliation – especially from instructor Megan Woods – in the form of “random, unjust searches” of untrue accusations that he was breaking rules, the lawsuit alleges.
During the next five weeks of Agbor-Baiyee’s training, at least six of his classmates wore similar Police Lives Matter shirts. During his fifth week of training, he wore a Black Lives Matter shirt to training. Woods pulled him aside, telling him his shirt was “inciting” and he could no longer wear it to training, according to the lawsuit.
Biller said in an email the department does not have an agency policy that prohibits clothing with text or logos.
The next day, all trainees learned from an instructor they could not wear shirts with text or logos on them.
A week later, Woods told Agbor-Baiyee to talk to the superintendent. Assistant superintendent Gene Riley told Agbor-Baiyee he was fired, according to the lawsuit.
Agbor-Baiyee asked for feedback and was told he was not a “fit,” was “causing a lot of problems” and did not “match the values” of the department.
The lawsuit called his firing “unlawful, discriminatory and retaliatory.”
Biller said Woods and Federico Anguiano are currently employed by the department. She said the department could not comment due to the ongoing litigation.
Carmen Pacheco-Jones, chair of the Racial Equity committee on the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, said she wasn’t surprised by the termination, but was “proud he had the courage to say that trainer’s shirt was inappropriate.”
Pacheco-Jones sees a power differential in the region, where some leaders find support for police apolitical, while considering the Black Lives Matter movement an offense to law and order.
She pointed to the firing of Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz.
Pacheco-Jones said that while Lutz drew District Administrator Amelia Clark’s ire for marching in a Black Lives Matter rally that exceeded the state’s COVID-19 limits on public gatherings, other members of the health board had been involved in conservative protests.
“When Black Lives Matter started growing in Spokane, to some it seemed like Black existence became an anti-policing agenda,” Pacheco-Jones said. “In reality, that’s not what it is. It’s like, ‘See me, see my humanity, and acknowledge that you’ve criminalized me because of the color of my skin.’ ”
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