African Americans in a rural Virginia county worried they were at risk after hearing that an emergency medical technician made racist comments on a white supremacist podcast.
"I'm mad as hell is bad," one man said, as a series of people demanded action from officials in Patrick County.
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Residents were outraged at comments made by Alex McNabb, who cohosts a podcast in which he has compared black patients to gorillas and claimed "immense satisfaction" as he "terrorized" an African American boy with a needle in an emergency room.
McNabb also addressed the meeting, which became heated. Supervisors decided to do nothing, refusing to take up calls to cut funding to the rescue service that employs McNabb.
Last week, the JEB Stuart Volunteer Rescue Squad put McNabb on unpaid leave pending an investigation after his racist comments were revealed in a Huffington Post article. But he has not been fired. He claims his words are fictional, and "entertainment," protected by the First Amendment.
Black residents of Patrick County told a Board of Supervisors meeting they feared racism could have cost them or their loved ones their lives or health after learning of McNabb's racist rhetoric.
"We think Adolf Hitler is dead. Nah, you cannot kill a demon," resident and Vietnam veteran Charles Thomas said at the meeting, which was live-streamed by The Enterprise community newspaper. "Just imagine if you were a black person needing medical help and call the rescue ... your chances of dying in that rescue vehicle are greater than if you stay home."
Thomas explained that, as a black man from the county, he remembers a time when his father was not even allowed to enter the hospital for treatment. Now, he said, with McNabb around, he feared for how black people would be treated.
Daniel Spencer, a black reverend and resident, admonished the supervisors for not taking action against the squad immediately.
"I'm mad as hell is bad," he said. "My hope and my prayer is we can get rid of this individual. You have the power."
Don Johnson, a white reverend, was the next to take to the podium. "Words matter. They reveal our identity," he said. "He should never be an employee of an organization that received public funds that are intended for the health care of the public."
The chair of supervisors, Lock Boyce, wanted to force JEB Stuart to fire McNabb immediately by withdrawing county funding until they did.
But no other supervisor supported him. They would only agree to make a statement denouncing racism in any form.
Some at the meeting applauded the decision to continue to fund the emergency service in a place where ambulance service has become even more vital after their community hospital closed this year. The Census Bureau shows Patrick County, a 92% white community in the Blue Ridge mountains, has higher levels of poverty and residents without health insurance than the national or state averages.
Wren Williams, the lawyer for JEB Stuart Rescue Squad and a county resident, took issue with the idea of defunding an important source of emergency help in the county. Williams said while the squad considers McNabb's comments wrong and indecent, it and the county need to protect themselves from being bankrupted by the costs of any litigation for wrongful termination.
"Now that Mr. McNabb has been placed on unpaid leave, we know that he cannot harm any individuals under our care," Williams argued. He then lashed out at Boyce, warning him the county should not place itself in a bad legal position by trying to force the company to terminate McNabb before an investigation was completed.
The Virginia Department of Health has opened an investigation into McNabb, focusing on whether "any alleged violations of Virginia's EMS regulations have occurred," the agency said in a statement earlier. Those regulations stipulate that "EMS personnel may not discriminate ... based on race, gender, religion, age, national origin, medical condition or any other reason." The investigation is expected to take 60 days, the rescue squad said.
During the meeting, McNabb ended up in a heated exchange with Boyce.
"I want to make this abundantly clear -- I am actually an entertainer," he said as he approached the podium. He said his commentary on "The Daily Shoah" podcast was constitutionally protected political speech and shock comedy. The title of the podcast mocks the Holocaust.
"This is about free speech, which is under assault in this country," McNabb said. "I will legally fight it. I'm not the first person who has done this."
McNabb said he is the victim of a smear campaign by the "far-left" media and then uttered one of President Trump's favorite refrains.
"The media in this country is the enemy of the people and they do not care about your community," McNabb said. "They care about their latest witch hunt because they know it's gonna sell some advertising."
Boyce read McNabb's words from the podcast reported in the Huffington Post article, quoting him as his alter-ego, "Dr. Narcan."
"'Dr. Narcan terrorized that youngster with a needle and stabbed him in the arm' using an improper needle size. Did you say that? Do you make that up? Do you think that's funny?" Boyce asked.
"I think it's funny," McNabb said. "My audience thinks it's funny."
"I don't!" Boyce yelled. "And even to have a thought like that is repugnant. You are talking about torturing children who are in your care."
McNabb appeared to taunt Boyce, declaring at one point, "I've got a much bigger audience than you do."
Virginia is an "employment-at-will state," which generally means an employer can terminate an employee at any time, for any reason or no reason at all. But there are limitations.
The case is testing the longtime protection for extremists whose words may be racist and offensive, but who are still shielded by free speech laws. In this case, McNabb's occupation is also front and center.