A demonstrator wearing a protective mask waves a “Black Lives Matter” flag on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 2020. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
After seeing six of his colleagues and a superior officer wear “Police Lives Matter” shirts, Enow-Tambong Agbor-Baiyee, a Black corrections officer in training, thought it would be fine to express his own personal beliefs on the job by wearing his “Black Lives Matter” shirt.
But rather than being allowed to wear the shirt, he says his choice of attire was immediately called into question, he was told he did not “match the values” of the organization, and he was eventually fired.
Agbor-Baiyee is now suing the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), according to court documents obtained by the Seattle Times. The lawsuit, filed in late November, accuses the DOC of wrongful and discriminatory termination.
“At no point did any DOC employee inform any students that their clothing was inappropriate for the setting or that they could not wear shirts with text or political statements,” the lawsuit states.
Agbor-Baiyee was hired by the Washington DOC and began working at the Airway Heights Correctional Facility on May 11. As part of the onboarding process, he took part in a six-week training program meant to prep him and his colleagues to be corrections officers. During his first week of training, Agbor-Baiyee says, one of his instructors wore a Police Lives Matter shirt, prompting him to complain about it in the program’s weekly evaluation.
Not only did his complaint go unaddressed, but soon afterward instructors began to treat him unfairly, accusing him of violating rules and subjecting him to random searches, according to Agbor-Baiyee’s lawsuit.
Over the course of the next five weeks, at least six other employees wore similar Police Lives Matter shirts, according to the suit.
When Agbor-Baiyee decided to wear his Black Lives Matter shirt, he was pulled aside by an instructor and told that his shirt was “inappropriate.” The very next day, a group of instructors told his training cohort that shirts with text or logos were no longer permitted.
At the start of his final week in training, Agbor-Baiyee was pulled out of training and told that his employment with the DOC was terminated.
“When Mr. Agbor-Baiyee asked for feedback on what he had done wrong, he was told he was ‘not being fit for DOC and causing a lot of problems’ and that he did not ‘match the values’ of DOC,” the lawsuit alleges.
Susan Biller, a DOC spokeswoman, told the Seattle Times that while the department typically asks that correctional officers wear their uniform while on duty, there is no agency-wide policy banning employees from wearing clothing with graphics or text on it.
Agbor-Baiyee’s attorney did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.
The Washington Department of Corrections did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.