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684: Burn It Down

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Prologue and Act One: A Policeman Burns Down the Firehouse

Ira Glass

A quick warning-- there are curse words that are un-beeped in today's episode of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

OK, so let's start here. This is a training video for firefighters in Amsterdam.

Fireman 1

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Fireman 2

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Ira Glass

Three firemen in an office, drinking coffee, catching up-- and then, one of them, this big bald guy, gets up to show the others this new helmet that he's just gotten, picks up a box off the floor, and says, what is that? He makes a face. It stinks, too. He smells his fingers. What is that?

Fireman 1

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Ira Glass

It's pee. This conversation understandably turns to speculation on how the pee might have gotten there. "Where'd you find this?" he asks.

Fireman 1

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Fireman 2

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Ira Glass

At the depot.

Fireman 1

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Ira Glass

Do you think it was a cat? It was not a cat.

Fireman 2

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Ira Glass

The rest of the video, which is entitled "The Incident With the Helmet," goes on for a few minutes explaining why it is not a good idea to pee in your colleague's helmet, even if it's a joke. Like, that can make people feel bad, and unwelcome. And the reason the fire department needed a video like this was the firefighters were peeing in their co-workers helmets and their drinks, and had been for years.

This was a re-enactment of an actual incident. Amsterdam firefighters had a kind of macho, frat house culture. And for women who came to work there, or anybody who wasn't white, it was rough in all kinds of ways-- pranks, bullying, racist jokes, sexist comments. Women described the environment as alienating. One Moroccan firefighter said, "What we want is not super special. We just want normal behavior, normal treatment of people."

The bosses had problems with them, too. The firefighters would simply ignore certain orders to change the way they worked. Back in 2011, the mayor of Amsterdam commanded them to do some straightforward things, like perform more home inspections, pass out smoke detectors, switch from 24-hour shifts to 8-hour shifts. A year passed, and another, and another. After five years-- still nothing. They'd pretty much blown off his requests.

Pual Vughts

The mayor didn't like to hear no

Ira Glass

Paul Books is a reporter at Amsterdam's biggest newspaper, Het Parool. He's covered the fire department for over 20 years.

Pual Vughts

He put his fist on the table and said, "And now, it's over. And now, I'll send you a strong man. He'll change the fire brigade in the way I want it to change."

Ira Glass

The strong man the mayor brought in was a guy named Leen Schaap. His firefighting experience before this-- nothing. He spent his whole career working at the Amsterdam Police Department. And he wasn't just an outsider-- he was somebody with a reputation for being a real hard ass.

Pual Vughts

I expected a riot because the way they live in the fire stations, being all day and nights, they're together-- cook together, sleep together-- that makes, in the end, that outsiders don't get in easy. Here in Amsterdam, the fire stations are really like small castles in the neighborhood.

Ira Glass

There's 19 fire stations all around Amsterdam. There were 750 firefighters-- 500 full-time, 250 volunteer-- a brigade with the same problems as lots of brigades here in the United States. And for sure, not all firehouses are like this. But it's not hard to find examples.

Outside of Chicago, male firefighters broke down their female co-worker's shower door while she was in there, showering. The chief handed her a towel and said, "Relax. It's firehouse fun." In Houston, women say their male co-workers peed on their beds, and when they complained, they were labeled troublemakers. The city could not substantiate those claims, but the Trump Justice Department has stepped in on the women's side. In Miami and New York, black fire department employees found nooses at work. In Michigan, a black firefighter found a banana on the windshield of his truck.

Amsterdam is one of the rare examples of a city that really decides to take on the "boys club" culture in firehouses. And the firefighters don't lay down. They fight every step of the way. And one thing that's unusual about the guy running this department, Leen Schaap, is that he is shockingly frank about just how messed up his department really is. One of his tactics is to be utterly transparent, and show the public what he learns is happening behind the closed doors of the firehouses. He's also blunt about the pushback he gets.

And so, unlike other fire departments and police departments with similar problems, in this case, for once, we see exactly how bad things were, laid bare. And we also see all the resistance when somebody comes in and tries to change it. We see just how hard that is to accomplish. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our show, we have this very unusual look inside a place like this. Reporter Joanna Kakissis has been digging into this for months. That'll be Act One of today's show. And this is such an embattled department that the only way Joanna could get most of the firefighters to talk to her was to change their names and replace their voices. So you're going to be hearing a bunch of that in what's about to follow. Basically, only Leen Schaap and one of his main opponents let us use their voices. Our producer, Miki Meek, reported this with Joanna. You'll hear Miki's voice in there, now and then, asking questions. Here's Joanna.

Act Two: Mom. Hey Mom. MOM. Hey Mom. Mom. Mom

Joanna Kakissis

To take on a bunch of tough guys, the mayor hired someone who was used to being the toughest guy in the room. Leen Schaap climbed to the upper ranks of the Amsterdam Police Department by speaking his mind, and not caring who didn't like it. He got things done by moving quickly and aggressively. He ran the riot squad. He was known in town for forcing out anarchists squatting in a full city block of abandoned homes. Amsterdam is a progressive city, and sympathy was with the squatters. Lots of people hated Leen for what he did. They threw paint bombs at him.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Only cowardly leaders don't show up.

Joanna Kakissis

My interviews with him are filled with these kind of tough guy cliches.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

This is a battle, and one of us is going to win it. And it's not going to be you.

Joanna Kakissis

Sometimes, it was hard to keep a straight face.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

I'm in the fire department, so I'm not really worried about getting burned.

Joanna Kakissis

OK. You're tough. You're tough.

Leen smiled. He knows when he's laying it on thick. He's intense, with reddish-brown hair and blue eyes that look incredibly icy if you've pissed him off. His first week on the job, there's a welcome lunch for him. Firefighters don't show up. Then, he gets an anonymous letter telling him not to enter any fire stations. He goes anyway, and he notices right away there's nowhere for him to park. The fire station's parking spaces are filled with recreational vehicles.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Boats with caravans, with camper vans-- because basically, the firefighters were using this area around the firehouse as their private space, saying, we're here 24 hours. This is kind of our house. This is our place.

Joanna Kakissis

Leen gave firefighters their first order. He said, get all your personal stuff out of here.

Interpreter

Then, they said, you don't run the show. You are not the one who decides this.

Joanna Kakissis

He actually said, "You don't run this."

Leen Schaap

"You don't run this. What's your problem?" That's what I said. "What's your problem?"

Interpreter

And kind of belittling-- "why are you getting so worked up about this little boat we have?"

Joanna Kakissis

And what was your response to that?

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

I told them, you have to get these boats and the camper vans out of here. If not, I'm going to hire somebody to take all that stuff away. And they were like, oh, go ahead. And I took a step forward, and stood my ground. You know, I threatened to take a police crane and lift it out of there.

Joanna Kakissis

Firefighters were furious, and thought Leen was acting too much like an uptight cop. But everyone complied. They got rid of their boats and campers. Except for one guy, who ignored Leen and defiantly brought a boat right back-- the only boat in the parking lot. Leen put him on probation and moved him to another firehouse. It was one of his first disciplinary actions. The guy retaliated by not coming to work, and taking the department to court.

Leen was figuring things out pretty fast. He estimated there were about 50 of these guys in the entire department-- guys who joined the brigade decades ago, and now ran their fire stations. They kept tabs on their bosses through a private Whatsapp channel. Some firefighters called them "The Brotherhood." Leen always called them--

Leen Schaap

The angry white men. We still have them.

Joanna Kakissis

Angry white men, he says, who are against any change that would force them out of their golden cages. He knew guys exactly like this in his police department days.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

These are tough guys, some born and raised in Amsterdam, or in the streets. They're built like a refrigerator. They have lots of tattoos. They have a big mouth. They're not so much super smart, but they're cunning. And if you try to approach them with too much nuance, then you're not going to make it, because they know how to play you.

Joanna Kakissis

And then, a few months into his job, Moroccan firefighters on the force started coming to him about a particular guy, one of The Brotherhood, who called them "cancer Moroccans." In Dutch, this is a racial slur. When I asked for an English equivalent, someone told me "cancer Moroccan" is like saying "fucking Moroccan scum."

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

And also, when he was supposed to put out fires in Amsterdam-West, where there's a lot of Muslims living, he would say that he had to go to the caliphate.

Joanna Kakissis

This guy had a long list of charges against him. He walked around in a Nazi jacket, he threatened to nail a crucifix to the shower door of a Muslim firefighter, and he refused to go to a fire drill at a mosque. Again, Leen--

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

This is really wrong. What if there's a fire in a mosque? Will he do his job? Will he save the people if he doesn't want to go in there now, for the practice? And as a first responder in this multicultural city, you can't say that you don't want to go somewhere because of religion.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

So when I heard about this case, I thought, I have to do something about this. I can't lead this life.

Joanna Kakissis

Leen fired him. It was the first time racism had been cited as a reason to fire someone from the Amsterdam Fire Department. So he'd gotten rid of the boats, he'd fired a guy for racism-- progress. But The Brotherhood started a petition for the firefighter to get his job back.

Joanna Kakissis

How did you feel about that?

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

It really opened my eyes. Instead of uniting around the people who were discriminated against, they united against the person who was discriminating, and they formed a block around him.

Joanna Kakissis

The problem ran so much deeper than Leen thought. Why wouldn't they want to stick up for the guy getting harassed? For Leen, it was obvious. He instinctively sided with the firefighter getting picked on, and he didn't understand anyone who didn't. That empathy for the outsider-- it made Leen an unusual commander. So he started investigating to figure out just how bad things were.

The numbers were not encouraging. When Leen started, there were only five female firefighters on the entire full-time force of 500. The fire department is not allowed to record race, but he estimates that only around 10% of the force were people of color. These numbers didn't reflect the city at all. At least a third of Amsterdam's population is non-white.

Leen visited the fire stations, and talked to firefighters over coffee at the long lunch tables there. And he learned that lots of them liked the changes he was bringing in. He had a silent band of support. He asked people about their experiences in the department, and to his surprise, people opened up to him. Through their stories, he started to get a sense of what it was like to be a person of color or a woman in his fire department.

Moroccan and Surinamese firefighters said they were called rats and monkeys. The Brotherhood told some they didn't belong-- that firefighters should be Dutch, and white. One Muslim firefighter I'm calling Ali told me that over time, he learned to go along with the racial slurs. So when his co-workers called him "bin Laden," he acted like he wasn't upset.

Ali

You have to ignore it. If they find out that you don't like it, they'll keep on coming back, and back, and back.

Joanna Kakissis

Have you ever reported discrimination in the past?

Ali

It wasn't possible to do that. Nobody does that. You could report whatever you want, but nothing was going to happen. In the worst of cases, when it really got out of hand, what you would just do is shake hands on it and get it over. The one accused-- he'll just say, come on, man. It was a joke. And nothing's going to happen.

Joanna Kakissis

Leen hired a consultant to help him reach out to women who'd quit the department. They felt like they never belonged. They said harassment and belittlement happened every hour of the day. One woman said men in her station asked her to leave the room so they could comment on her ass. Men told women to sit in the windows of the firehouse as if they were prostitutes in the red light district. During job interviews, women were asked how they do their jobs on their periods.

One of the few female officers in the Amsterdam Fire Department is a woman I'm calling Judy. The guys respected her. She was strong, physically, and she was tough-- had no problem standing up to these guys. But even she felt like she was constantly being tested, like when a firefighter under her command purposely opened his towel in front of her. When she suggested that her boss has not put women into fire stations alone, but with other women, one of her superiors called her a "highly educated moaning female."

One night, she was doing her rounds, checking in on everyone, and stopped by the canteen.

Judy

I was saying good night to everybody. And then, they were sitting and watching porn.

Joanna Kakissis

Didn't you say something then?

Judy

No. So I didn't say anything about that.

Joanna Kakissis

Porn was a regular thing in the common areas of lots of the stations.

Judy

I don't know why I didn't say anything. I didn't feel comfortable to say it, probably. It's also me being influenced by The Brotherhood, I think. Because saying something-- it's always uncomfortable to say that. So yeah, I have to admit that I've avoided it, too.

Joanna Kakissis

Everyone's grip on what was normal was out of whack. Judy remembers a woman at a fire station who had this particular bedtime ritual.

Judy

So she would go to bed, and somebody would come to tuck her in.

Joanna Kakissis

Wait. They tucked her into bed at night? What exactly do you mean?

Judy

Oh, tucking in-- it was like when you put your little one to sleep, and you pull your blankets tight around the person. So the guy who would do that said, I'm going to tuck her in. And I felt uncomfortable about that for her. I mean, it was her choice. But I would never do that, because it makes a certain situation that I think you should avoid.

Joanna Kakissis

She was fine with it? She didn't mind this happening?

Judy

Well, actually, I don't know. I can't remember ever talking to her about that.

Joanna Kakissis

Why?

Judy

Yeah. That's a good question. Maybe I might be putting her more in danger. Or I might not be helping her. Or maybe I was telling myself, well, maybe it's her choice, and she likes it or something. But yeah, I don't know.

Joanna Kakissis

Hearing all these stories, Leen realized he had to spell things out-- what is normal behavior in a workplace. He wrote a manifesto on how to behave like a professional firefighter and sent it out to everyone. It begins, "All of us are going to act normal."

"Normal" meant, we don't yell at each other. We don't steal coffee from the firehouses. We don't make offensive comments on social media. We always wear our uniforms. We don't store our personal tanning beds in the women's dormitories if we're men. If you break the rules, you'll be punished. And if you no longer know what "normal" is, please find out.

One of the biggest ways firefighting is not like a normal job-- firefighters work 24-hour shifts. So everyone lives together. They work out, shop for groceries, cook, watch TV, play soccer, sleep. Professional boundaries get blurry. Leen wanted to push the department to 8-hour shifts. It would make fire stations more like a workplace, and less like a private club.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

I think the fire department-- many of the firefighters will fight almost literally to the death to defend this 24-hour shift.

Joanna Kakissis

Firefighters liked being together for 24 hours, and hanging out, and then getting a couple days off to spend with their families, or hold down second jobs. And The Brotherhood argued that bonding in the fire station is essential. The pushback was so strong that Leen managed to open just one firehouse on 8-hour shifts as an experiment. The Brotherhood pressured firefighters not to transfer there.

The guys in The Brotherhood are afraid to talk to reporters. Everyone I reached out to was worried he'd lose his job. But I did get four of them to speak to me on condition that I not use their names. I'll call this one Jan. He did let me use his real voice.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

He said the problem in the department wasn't them. It was Leen. And tucking women into bed-- he said it wasn't sexist.

Jan

I can only confirm that they did it to me, as well. And I didn't feel embarrassed about it at that moment. But--

Joanna Kakissis

The women would tuck you into bed? Is that what--

Jan

No, the men.

Joanna Kakissis

The men would tuck you into bed?

Jan

Yeah, come on. Yeah. There are jokes sometimes, you know? I also went to bed, and I stepped in my bed. And somebody else came from the shower, and he was already, before me, in my bed. So these kind of things happen.

Joanna Kakissis

But if you're a woman, and somebody is tucking you into bed, it's a different experience. And it's--

Jan

Tucking is not something that they want to shock you, or they want to embarrass you, or they--

Joanna Kakissis

Yeah. But I guess what I'm saying is, OK, there are people who are minorities and who are women. They're just too afraid to speak out to you, because they're afraid of repercussions.

Jan

Listen. It's so stupid if I say all the time "it doesn't happen," or "that doesn't happen." It probably happened with one female employee. And probably one female employee left, also. Do you have to say, then, OK, this is a sexist company, or all the females are bullied, or all the Arabic people are bullied? I don't think so.

Joanna Kakissis

I asked him about the firefighter Leen fired-- the one who called the Muslim neighborhood in Amsterdam "the caliphate," and used racial slurs on his Moroccan co-workers.

Jan

He's not a racist. That's for 100%.

Joanna Kakissis

What do you mean by that?

Jan

To me, it is an incident-- still an incident in a big company. Don't make it bigger than it is. I'm 29 years with my wife, you know? If I focus on all the bad things that I said about her then, we would never get married.

Joanna Kakissis

You don't think they should have fired him earlier?

Jan

No, no, no, no. No. You don't have to fire him at all. As long as he's not running around naked in his roller skates, he's OK with me.

Joanna Kakissis

You think he can use a term like "cancer Moroccan"-- and you're not a racist?

Jan

It's not OK. But in the heat of the discussion, you say things that are not OK, that you are not allowed to say. And the opposite party will do the same, probably. Yeah. And who is right and who is wrong-- I don't judge that. I was not there. But one thing is for sure-- I know he's not a racist.

Joanna Kakissis

How much do you think that the force should adapt to new firefighters?

Jan

The thing is-- when we have the feeling that we are forced to change, then it's going to be-- that's, in my opinion, the wrong way. So if you want to change, the trick is not to force it, and do it in a very clever way, that you--

Joanna Kakissis

In a very what way?

Jan

In a clever way, that you change without noticing. That would be the perfect way. And this is not happening right now.

Joanna Kakissis

This is what Leen says he was up against-- a group of men for whom "normal" meant keeping things exactly the way they'd always been.

Joanna Kakissis

I was just wondering-- doesn't a boss have the right to impose boundaries on workplaces?

Jan

We are not in this business for him. It's not a job. It's a way of life, worldwide. So let's make this very clear-- for us, it is not a job. It's a way of life.

Joanna Kakissis

Leen's approach to making big institutional change is based on a progressive fairly new management theory, designed to curb lawless organizations. It's essentially-- draw hard boundaries. Make no concessions. Be consistent, unrelenting. And in 10 to 15 years, maybe there'll be a real shift. It's arduous. The beginning is the hardest part.

This approach made a lot of sense to Leen because of his experience on the Amsterdam Police Force. He helped clean up and reform the department. As a rookie cop, he'd seen the problems firsthand. He started in a corrupt precinct, the red light district in the 1980s. He says cops stole, sold drugs, were excessively violent. Changing that meant rigorously enforcing rules, writing up bad cops, disciplining them, firing them. Leen says it took about 10 years for the rules to be accepted as normal. But this confrontational approach is not the way things usually work in the Netherlands.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

You know, the Dutch culture is very much everything peace, everything together, no conflict. And with the fire department, the traditional recipe is talking, talking, talking.

Joanna Kakissis

The Dutch have this term, "polder model." They take pride in it. The idea is to bring everyone together, despite their differences, just like their ancestors came together to build dikes and dams to protect their land from the sea. Historians debate whether that's actually true. But anyway, everyone from Parliament to the local amateur soccer club tries to make decisions this way-- through discussions and consensus.

Leen did dabble with polder model a little in the beginning. He spent his first six months going to fire stations, trying to convince people that diversity would make them a stronger fire department in a city with almost 170 nationalities, and that women bring pragmatism and emotional intelligence to the brigade. But Leen was almost always met with blank stares. Guys told him, women aren't strong enough for this job. One of them said, you just want an excuse to bring in a hundred broads. Again, here's Leen.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Intellectually, it's hard to have these conversations about diversity. And I don't intend to sound crass, and I don't want to be unkind about my people, but some of them are too stupid to keep having this diversity conversation, and convince them that way. And at some point, you just have to say that we're going to stop talking about it. We're just going to do it. And we're going to do it this way.

This is an organization. It's not some kind of democratic kumbaya thing where we're all going to talk about it, and then the majority rules. You can take it or leave it.

Joanna Kakissis

He was done reasoning with them. He didn't have to, after all. He had the full support of Mayor Eberhard van der Laan, who was wildly popular. The city adored him. He snubbed Vladimir Putin when he was in town because of the Russian leader's anti-LGBT views. The city council backed the mayor, and he backed Leen-- which meant, with the mayor's support, Leen could do whatever he wanted. And he had a big idea for how to get the kind of accountability he wanted in the fire department.

Ira Glass

Coming up-- you can discipline people, you can threaten their jobs. But when all else fails, try a talk show. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, "Burn It Down"-- we have two stories of people who think they have no other choice. It is time to burn everything down, make enemies, do what has to be done. We're in the middle of Act One. A policeman burns down a firehouse. Joanna Kakissis, in this act, is reporting on the Amsterdam Fire Department, the resistance to change from inside the department, and, in this half of her story, how the bigger politics of the city start to shift everything.

Quick program note before we start the second half of this. Joanna discovered, when she started looking into this story, that the fire commander's partner, who is a journalist, is somebody who Joanna has worked with in the past. Joanna has not discussed the content of the story with this journalist. The journalist was not involved in this story in any way. Again, here's Joanna.

Joanna Kakissis

Leen had devised a very unusual plan. But to pull it off, he had to enlist the mayor. He did something that I've rarely seen any public official do-- he took all his criticisms about his own fire department and made them public. And by doing so, he made himself the biggest critic of some of the most beloved figures in Amsterdam.

Imagine the head of the police department in New York or Chicago publishing a long list of all the bad stuff their officers had done. It would blow up in their faces. That did not happen to Leen. Here's how he went about it. He started by writing a single letter to the mayor detailing his findings about discrimination and bullying at the fire department.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

He read the letter. There was a certain surprise, because I think he literally said, I thought there were all kinds of things going on. But it turns out there was even more going on than I thought. But now, I actually have the proof. And now, we're going to work on this together.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

In response, the mayor wrote his own letter blasting the fire department, and sent it with Leen's to the city council, making them public record. Reporters pounced.

Joanna Kakissis

Did you and the mayor-- did the two of you talk about it as a strategy?

Leen Schaap

Yeah.

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

It was absolutely my idea. And I knew it was going to end up in the media. I knew this was going to make the papers. So that was something that I thought before-- that if I write this letter, there's going to be a certain amount of pressure that would get the municipal council, and also the public, to see that something needed to be done.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

This was very, very calculated, even to the point where I did use words that I knew the media would pounce on to get a discussion going.

Joanna Kakissis

Like what?

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Racism, discrimination, bullying, exclusion-- these are terms that I know are going to get people's attention.

Joanna Kakissis

It's really unusual for a public official to do something like this.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Yes. It is extremely unusual. But it makes it very effective. And I looked at what former fire commanders did, and I felt that they didn't use the possibilities they had enough. And I consciously decided, I'm going to make war. And that means you have to get your hands dirty, and you have to go public.

Joanna Kakissis

Do you remember any discussion you had with the mayor, or with anyone else, who was less sure that this was the right way?

Leen Schaap

Um, ja.

Joanna Kakissis

Yeah? OK.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

What I noticed with the people around me was mostly fear. And so that was a lot of the people in management here. They supported me, but they were kind of reticent. Because they knew this kind of organization-- if you go looking for a fight, you're going to get a fight.

Joanna Kakissis

Did the mayor ever have any reservations about this as a strategy?

Leen Schaap

Not one second.

Joanna Kakissis

The details in Leen's report landed on the front page of the main newspaper in Amsterdam. Then, the mayor and Leen went on a media blitz.

[NEWS STATION JINGLE]

Here's Leen on the radio show, flinging open the doors on what really goes on inside a firehouse. The host of the program says to Leen, "So, what you found was a very macho culture. Can you give me some examples of that?"

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Well, if you're sitting at a table, and you're Moroccan, and something comes on TV about Islam, then people start talking about "those cancer Moroccans." And when you're sitting there as a serious professional firefighter, it has an effect on you. And then, of course, you're the exception. Like, hey, we don't mean you. It's those other cancer Moroccans. That's one example.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

And I've got people telling me I can survive the 24-hour shift. I'll just stay in my room. And then, as a group, you could think, oh, OK. Somebody's spending the whole shift in their room. But you could also think, what's going on here?

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

And that's really what I want to happen-- that we're able to engage with each other in a healthy way.

Joanna Kakissis

People wrote to newspapers saying they were repulsed by the firefighters' behavior. City council members said they were shocked. The mayor told Leen to keep pushing on with his reforms. But inside the firehouses, Leen's tactics did not go over well. His support shrunk. Even people who agreed with his goals, who thought he was fighting the good fight, felt like he was smearing everyone, lumping them together, making them all look bad.

Firefighter

The way that he did that-- he turned every firefighter against him.

Joanna Kakissis

This is a longtime firefighter of color in the brigade.

Firefighter

Leen and the mayor went about it really radically. They used the newspapers to try to turn public opinion against us. There were very, very hurtful stories in the newspapers that we were racist, that we were sexist-- all kinds of old stories, really, from a decade or more ago were brought back to paint a black picture of us.

Joanna Kakissis

And of course, The Brotherhood was pissed. It was a public declaration of war. On social media, firefighters called Leen and the mayor "know-it-all political losers" and "vile," "full of lies." They wrote, "Indict this mayor and have him sued for defamation," and, "Thanks, Leen, we're all painted like a bunch of racists."

Inside the firehouses, the atmosphere changed. Attitudes hardened. Again, here's Ali, the firefighter of color who says his white co-workers called him bin Laden. He said things got worse for anyone who wasn't white.

Ali

Something literally broke. And now, for the first time, you see that people, for instance, won't shake your hand. There's this tradition. After we put out a fire, we always sit on the side. We have a coffee, and all the firemen shake each other's hands. That's really a tradition. And now, for the first time since I've been here, white firefighters are refusing to shake our hands.

Joanna Kakissis

Meanwhile, Leen got more done than ever. He doubled down on recruitment, went to mosques and dinners during Ramadan, tried to convince more people of color and women to join the fire brigade. Slowly, those numbers have increased. He also backed managers who disciplined bad actors. He streamlined work shifts, opened a new firehouse, and improved fire prevention. He made homes safer by sending firefighters door-to-door in the city.

Leen, with the backing of the mayor, was making the kinds of changes he was hired to make, in exactly the way he wanted to make them-- quickly and aggressively. But then, something happened that Leen hadn't accounted for. Six months into his job, Mayor Eberhard van der Laan revealed he was sick-- lung cancer. A half year later, he died. Immediately, the ground started to shift under Leen. When the mayor died, The Brotherhood grew emboldened. Here's Leen.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

People commented that it was great that he died. And there was even somebody, when van der Laan was on his deathbed, who said, "Van der Laan, the cockroach, is slipping away."

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

And that was quite shocking-- that somebody is on his deathbed from cancer, and you're rejoicing in that. But for them, it really was one enemy less.

Joanna Kakissis

Soon, a campaign to push Leen out of his job kicked into high gear. Retired firefighters and unions rallied around The Brotherhood, publicly demanding that the city investigate Leen for bad mouthing the fire department in the media. Firefighters did interviews anonymously, denouncing Leen in a conservative newspaper, the biggest paper in the Netherlands. From the moment the mayor announced he was sick, Leen started getting anonymous death threats. One letter said a hitman was being hired. Another targeted his 14-year-old daughter. He was told the threats were coming from inside the fire department.

In the summer of 2018, Amsterdam got an energetic new mayor, the first woman in the city's history-- Femke Halsema. She was Leen's new boss, and spent many years in parliament as a high-profile lawmaker representing the left-wing Green Party, a champion of women's rights. As a politician, she pushed for tax breaks to address poverty. She also wrote newspaper columns, and made a documentary about Muslim women.

Mayor Halsema condemned the death threats against Leen, and publicly threw her support behind him. But not long after she started, Leen remembers her stopping by for a private meeting. He told her about some of the changes he was trying to make. Her reaction shocked him.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

When we were having this conversation about racism and discrimination, the mayor herself came with the following example. Apparently, she heard from one of the fire stations, or one of the fireman told her, that we have a number of black colleagues working here--

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

--and there was one that all the other firefighters were calling "Haar," which is a Dutch name. And that wasn't his name.

Joanna Kakissis

It was a racist wordplay joke. They looked for reasons to say no to him so they could say, "No, Haar," or in Dutch, "Nee, Haar," which means Negro.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

The mayor laughed about this and said, this is really funny. I find this extremely hilarious.

Joanna Kakissis

She seriously laughed?

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

She laughed very loudly. And for me, that was really a pivotal moment, in which I realized, I am fighting against all this, and I am dealing with a mayor who thinks this is funny.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

I told her I was immensely shocked that she had to laugh about these so-called humorous remarks. And I really asked her, what is going wrong here?

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

Mayor Halsema, via email, denied Leen's account. She said she's only told the joke in meetings as an example of, quote, "intolerable behavior that's not always recognized as such by firefighters." For Leen, that moment crystallized the world of difference between his old and new boss. After that, he gave up on her.

Mayor Halsema had, like the rest of Amsterdam, seen Leen's fight with the firefighters play out in the media, and she didn't like it. She liked talking up problems and reaching consensus-- the Dutch way. Fire department managers who sat in on meetings with the new mayor and Leen said it was clear right away that they didn't get along-- that sometimes, he was abrasive. Their styles were totally different. They called the mayor "Tai Chi," and Leen "Boxing."

The mayor ordered her own investigation into the fire department. The new investigation acknowledged there were problems, but it concluded that overall, the fire department was, quote, "at its core not a racist or sexist organization," and it called on Leen to take a different approach, and build trust with firefighters. A city hall reporter told me this report basically threw Leen under the bus. When it came out at the end of 2018, Leen had been on the job for about two and a half years. I spoke to him around this time. He seemed unfazed by the report. He was still going about the business of reforming the fire department, and airing its dirty laundry, like this problem firefighter.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

He's not fired yet, but I'm going to fire him. So here's the situation. There was a group of firefighters in a supermarket, because they were doing shopping for their firehouse. They were all in their uniforms, standing at the register. And at the register, there was also an elderly lady on a mobility scooter.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

She's trying to pay for her groceries, and 150 euros falls out of her pocket. And one of the firemen sees that-- that she drops this money-- and puts it into his sock, and walks out with it. Well, some time passes, and the elderly lady goes home, and she realizes her money's gone.

Joanna Kakissis

The woman checked back with the store about her missing cash, and security camera showed one of Leen's men putting her money in a sock. Taking an old lady's money while you're wearing your firefighter's uniform-- of course, that did not fly with Leen. The police got involved. It was embarrassing and outrageous.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

But the reaction isn't like, oh my god, I can't believe he stole that money.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Instead, the reaction is that it's ridiculous that I'm going to fire him, because he returned the money to the police.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

This spring, a group of firefighters showed up at a city council meeting to air their grievances against Leen. Also, they're retired firefighters. A firefighter named Mike Snijder stood at a podium. He's clean cut, has a baby face. He read a statement.

Mike Snijder

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Enough is enough. Even though I'm taking a huge risk by speaking here today, I'm willing to take that risk for my colleagues who are having complete mental breakdowns. Our leaders have chosen to bad mouth us in the media, and that makes us feel unsafe, both in public and at the fire stations, too, where we're constantly walking on eggshells. The fire department leadership has proven, time and again, that they aren't interested in building trust. There will always be fear and distrust. This is a broken marriage that can't be fixed.

Mike Snijder

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Councilman

Dank.

[APPLAUSE]

Joanna Kakissis

He said Leen made it so firefighters couldn't do their jobs properly, and that it was threatening the safety of everyone in Amsterdam. A city council person asked him to say more.

Councilman

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Mike Snijder

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

If we're constantly having to look around to make sure that the leadership isn't looking over our shoulders, then we can't do our job.

Joanna Kakissis

City council is a political position. You get voted in. And, like the fire department, it doesn't reflect the city. It's mostly white. Under the old mayor, the council was in full support of Leen. When he first exposed the racism and sexism in the department two years before this, they'd been on his side.

But now, that was old news. The public had moved on. Amsterdam's a progressive city, but on race, it has blind spots. During the holidays, some people still wear blackface when they dress up as St. Nick's helpers. And the public shock over the racism and sexism in the department didn't last. What was more shocking was the way Leen was speaking out. The city council was tired of Leen waging this loud, messy fight. And at this meeting, they were sympathetic to Leen's critics.

Councilwoman

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

Here's one city councilwoman saying, "I know you can't talk to the press, but you can come to me." She also said, "I think it's very brave of you to be here today."

Councilwoman

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

Retired firefighters jumped up from their chairs, gave a standing ovation.

Councilwoman

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

[APPLAUSE]

Joanna Kakissis

Leen is there, annoyed.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

He literally said, I can't do my job because I feel that the boss is looking over my shoulder. And like, really? You can't do your job when somebody is looking at what you're doing?

Joanna Kakissis

Leen says cops use the same arguments to fight any change.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

How do you alarm public opinion? By suggesting that what we're doing is making the public unsafe.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

If they can't do their job because they're afraid, then that's unsafe for the public.

Joanna Kakissis

Mayor Halsema did not feel the same way. After the meeting, she gave this interview to local news.

Femke Halsema

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

She says, "Of course it's very worrying. If they don't have a good work environment, that could indirectly affect their ability to do their jobs well."

Femke Halsema

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

And, "We do have to take these firefighters' concerns seriously." After that city council meeting, Leen knew he was running out of options. City council had lost faith in him, the mayor was not on his side, and 400 firefighters-- more than half the brigade-- signed a petition saying they didn't trust him to run the department.

Inside the fire department, Leen's supporters started to hear rumors. I caught up with some of them in May, not long after the city council meeting.

Joanna Kakissis

Do you think Commander Schaap is about to get fired?

Ali

I hope it's not fast. I hope he doesn't leave.

Joanna Kakissis

Again here's, Ali.

Joanna Kakissis

What would that mean for you, personally, if he was?

Ali

I'd be very disappointed. What he did is give minorities a platform where they could speak out. And that wasn't there before him. Now, we're in direct contact with the upper echelons of management. We can immediately reach them, ask for help-- we get a lot of support. And that definitely makes a difference.

Joanna Kakissis

Leen had been there almost three years, and Ali, and a couple of female managers, told me they were finally starting to see change. Firefighters were thinking twice before making racist and sexist comments.

Ali

Everybody's more careful now. People are really correcting each other. Still, things happen, and people make jokes like that. But someone will say, hey, watch out. It's something you could have said before in the old days. Nowadays, you can't do this anymore. Now, all the improvements we've seen over the past few years-- if he leaves, you can throw all that in the Amstel River. It's going to be back to square one. These angry white men have always been dominant. They always decided what went down.

Joanna Kakissis

Does the city-- does the mayor understand that this is now the situation?

Ali

Well, I don't know about the mayor. She's new. But I hope she won't fire him. If she does fire him, just shake hands on it with us and say, OK, we don't want people of color in the fire brigade. That would be a fair way to go about it. Just say, OK. Quit it. We only want white people. Because that's the message they would give.

Joanna Kakissis

That's what it'd signal to you-- is she saying, I don't need any more people like you, I don't need any more minorities?

Ali

Not just, "I don't need any more people"-- "I don't need people like you anymore." This culture forms over a hundred years, and it's really hard to try to get a foot in the door while people just want their old fire brigade back. And they will resist any change. That's reality.

Joanna Kakissis

I asked Leen to give me a gut check.

Joanna Kakissis

Do you feel like your days are numbered?

Leen Schaap

[SIGH] Uh.

[LAUGHTER]

Joanna Kakissis

Big sigh.

Leen Schaap

Yeah.

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

He wants to talk-- I think we should talk about that maybe at a different moment.

Joanna Kakissis

It's not something that you really want to talk about right now?

Interpreter

No, no.

Joanna Kakissis

Have you made a pitch to the mayor about why you should stay?

Leen Schaap

Ja.

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

I told her that the phase we're in now-- it takes about six years to break the habits. And so only after six years old should you start thinking about unifying things. And I think now, the municipal organization is all about trying to find unification. But I think that's too soon. And so I told her, you should just leave me here for another couple of years to do the breaking bit.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Joanna Kakissis

What did the mayor say?

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

She nodded.

Joanna Kakissis

The mayor declined many requests for an interview. I wondered if Leen was regretting his management style, if he was thinking he should have been more polder model-- more diplomatic.

Joanna Kakissis

Do you feel like there's something about the way you do things that perhaps contributed? So this is something that you may see in retrospect, like, I should have done this differently, or I should have approached this differently. I'm just curious.

Leen Schaap

Ja.

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

Sometimes I think maybe, in retrospect, I wanted results too fast.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

But a real cultural change really can't be forced, or sped up. So instead of creating more support, you get more resistance because the organization isn't ready to change.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

And so I was very black and white. And I don't really regret it. But maybe, I think now, with more nuance, I would have opened it more to conversation instead of just resistance.

Joanna Kakissis

Do you think the conversation would have helped?

Leen Schaap

No.

[LAUGHTER]

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

That's the dilemma.

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

But honesty begs me to say that I also really didn't try. I just went down and laid down the law. And maybe, if I tried, then it would have been slightly different. But the question really is, how long do you want it to take? Do you accept this kind of behavior to continue for another 20 years? And I'm trying to change it sooner rather than later.

Joanna Kakissis

So Leen, I'm starting to think-- and maybe this is me just being paranoid-- but I'm starting to think that you're telling me that your days are numbered. Is that what you're telling me right now?

Leen Schaap

[SPEAKING DUTCH]

Interpreter

I am not allowed to speak about this.

Joanna Kakissis

Leen's last day as commander of the Amsterdam Fire Department is October 1. Mayor Halsema issued a press release recently announcing his departure, and made it clear that she had forced him out. She says combating discrimination is still a top priority.

When the news came out, firefighters at one station celebrated with cake. A photo circulated on social media of firefighters in front of a fire truck wearing party hats. The Brotherhood had won. One guy tweeted, "Bye bye, Kim Jung Schaap." The day Leen's departure was announced, a firefighter parked a camper van at a station.

Ira Glass

Joanna Kakissis. She's normally a reporter for NPR'S Daily News programs.

[MUSIC - "TIME FOR YOU TO GO" BY THE THREE TO GET]

Credits

Ira Glass

Act Two. Mom? Hey, mom? Mom? Mom! Hey, Mom! Mom! Mom! So we have time on the show today for just one more quick story about somebody deciding that the only way forward is to rip something down and rebuild from the ground up. Elna Baker, tell us what happened.

Elna Baker

Here's a typical day from when Katie Dyer was 15, growing up outside Detroit. She gets home from school--

Katie Dyer

And our chore list was posted on the banister. And I was really frustrated, because it was longer than normal, and there were chickens from where the sliding glass door had been left open.

Elna Baker

This happened all the time. Her mom loved chickens, and they got in the house. Here a chick, there a chick, everywhere a-- you know.

Katie Dyer

There were chickens perched on the couch. There were chickens on the kitchen counter, and on the dining room table. I mean, there were just chickens everywhere. And I looked up the stairs, and she was sitting at the computer. And I was just-- in that moment, I was very frustrated. Because now, I've got to herd the chickens outside, complete all these chores-- so I was just very irritated. And at some point, rather than going straight into my chores, I sat down to journal.

Elna Baker

Will you read me what you wrote?

Katie Dyer

Yeah. So in this entry, it says, "My mom never does anything but sit at the computer and play the stupid Sims online anymore."

Elna Baker

That's what her mom was doing when she came home from school-- playing The Sims. You know, the video game where you get a simulated family and a simulated house to live a simulated life.

Katie Dyer

Today, she made me do all the real chores after school because she was busy doing fake ones on The Sims. She brought home three fancy chickens today. Oh, great-- more fucking birds. OK. Gotta go. Bye.

Elna Baker

Katie says her mom moved out of her bedroom and set up a futon in the computer room to sleep next to the game. She'd play, crash on the futon, play more. Katie craved her attention.

Katie Dyer

I remember, I used to just sometimes go up to her little den area, where her computer was set. And sometimes, doing things just to intentionally annoy her-- but in a funny way. Like, I would take her headphones off, and I would just come up to her, and sort of zerbert her neck-- like, raspberry her neck. Or, like-- what can I do to get your attention?

Elna Baker

Katie began to feel invisible.

Katie Dyer

Like, I was just standing there, waving my arms over my head-- which is hilarious, because that's something the Sims would literally do. When they wanted your attention, they'd put their arms over their head, and wave them, and shout at you in whatever Sim language they speak.

Elna Baker

Sometimes, Katie would catch glimpses of the world her mom was building. In The Sims, her mother played the guitar and piano, had dinner parties. She also had a Sims family named after her real husband and kids. Her sister and father looked like their Sims-- but not Katie. In real life, Katie dyed her hair and dressed edgy.

Katie Dyer

But I remember-- the Sim that she had named after me had this stupid, almost bowl-cut-looking brown hair, and always wore these pencil skirts and button-ups. And I remember thinking, like, that's not me at all. Is that who you wish I was?

Elna Baker

She tried everything she could think of to coax her mom off the Sims. She tried to reason with her, joke with her, bargain with her. Finally, Katie reached a breaking point. One night, she sat down at the computer and opened her mom's Sims world.

Katie Dyer

With her literally sleeping on the futon, just five feet away from me, was like-- well, I'm doing this. The first thing I did was-- so there was a cheat code. I think it's a semicolon and an exclamation point, over and over. You put it in, and you can get, like-- it was a lot of money. I got enough money that I could buy multiple stoves, mostly.

Another thing that I did, I remember, is you could buy-- I think it was like-- you know those oversized teddy bears people give? You could buy these giant oversized bears, and put them near the fireplace, and stuff like that. And so I removed the fire extinguishers, and the smoke detectors, and stuff. And I remember walking the Sim she had named after me out to the yard, and deleting the door behind me that went out to the front yard, and just waiting.

Elna Baker

Her dad and sister Sim go to the stoves and start cooking. Soon, a kitchen and a living room fire break out. The sparks hit the teddy bears-- game on.

Katie Dyer

And the Sims are just running around, screaming with their hands in the air. And like--

Elna Baker

And they really scream, right?

Katie Dyer

Yes. They scream in whatever that weird Sim language is.

Elna Baker

Can you do it?

Katie Dyer

[SCREAMING IN SIMLISH] It's just like that. It's just gibberish. And I'm laughing so hard. Like, I remember at some point thinking, I'm going to pee my pants. And I'm trying so hard to not laugh out loud, because she's sleeping right behind me.

Elna Baker

There were firemen, but they'd only come if you told your Sim to call them.

Katie Dyer

I burned her Sim house and family alive.

[LAUGHTER]

Elna Baker

Eventually, the fire stops. The Katie character stands in the yard. Her mom, father, and sister are dead. When a Sim dies, this little urn appears in its place.

Katie Dyer

I went back in the house. And you could pick up the little urns. And I picked up the little urns, and just placed them near each other, and knew, well, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble tomorrow.

Elna Baker

Because Katie was the only Sim left, it was going to be pretty clear who'd done all this.

Katie Dyer

I got up the next morning to leave for school. And I remember, as I was leaving, she was just sort of starting to get logged into her game and stuff. When I got home, she yelled at me to come up the stairs. I came up the stairs, and she paused her Sim game that she had been rebuilding to turn around and yell at me. And she was like, you owe me an apology. That was weeks of my life. And it still felt like a small victory, I guess, because it was one of the first times in a while that she had to step away from that life to engage her real life.

Elna Baker

She wrote in her journal, "Grounded. Figures. But it was funny. I have to do all the housework now so she can rebuild. I do all of it anyway, so whatever. Dad thinks I'll go to jail someday. At least in jail, they don't make you get up at 6:00 AM to feed chickens."

[FIRE NOISES AND SCREAMING]

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is one of the producers of our show. Katie Dyer has done no jail time, and she's a bus driver and mom in Knoxville. A version of her story originally appeared on Mortified. You can get their podcast wherever you get your podcasts, or at getmortified.com.

[MUSIC - "SORRY" BY BEYONCÉ]

Our program was produced today by Miki Meek, with help from Nadia Reiman. People who put the show together today include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Damien Graef, Michelle Harris, Jessica Lussenhop, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Julie Snyder, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney.

Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Our interpreters for today's show-- Stephanie van den Berg, Joost van Egmond, and Helena de Groot. The voice actors you heard-- Michiel Bakker, Mike Lebanon, and Jara Lucieer. I'm going to just say-- these things are so hard to pronounce. For the special thanks, I'm going to hand it over to our interpreter, Helena de Groot.

Helena De Groot

Special thanks today to Hagar Jobse, Hannah van der Wurff, Aviva de Kornfeld, Joost Kampen, Elly Kloosterman, Kemal Rijken, Anke Truijen, Hassan Bahara, Ruben Koops, Hans van Velden, Dimitris Angelidis, Toby Sterling, Bo Tarenskeen, and Christopher Miller.

Ira Glass

Thank you, Helena. Our website-- thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he's like a marriage expert-- everyone on staff goes to him for advice all the time.

Jan

I'm 29 years with my wife. If I focus on all the bad things that I said about her, then we would never get married.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "SORRY" BY BEYONCÉ]