Racist culture flourished at Milwaukee Coors facility years before deadly shooting

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By Annie Gowen and Katie Zezima, The Washington Post

MILWAUKEE – Current and former employees of the Molson Coors brewery here say there is a long-held culture of racism, including racist cartoons placed in workspaces, the n-word scrawled in break rooms and bathrooms and nooses hung at the facility — one on the locker of an employee who killed five co-workers there last week.

Police have not provided a motive for the Feb. 26 rampage, which ended when gunman Anthony Ferrill killed himself inside the iconic brewery that has produced Miller beer for more than a century. Police also have not said racism played a part in the shooting deaths.

“I don’t believe that was a factor,” said Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales during an interview on news radio station WTMJ.

Ferrill, who is black, worked as an electrician at the facility for 17 years.

Six current and former employees and others with knowledge of the brewery said overtly racist acts have occurred there for years. A noose was found on Ferrill’s locker in 2015, they said, prompting a brewery-wide meeting with human resources.

The employees also described a workplace where minority workers were subject to racist language and taunts based on their religion.

“Everyone knows the environment we worked in. It’s just a sad situation that it actually happened,” said former brewery worker Jelani Muhammad of the noose on Ferrill’s locker.

Molson Coors said Ferrill was not working the day the noose was reported.

“Our HR team notified him of the incident, it was investigated fully, no camera footage was available to show who placed it on the locker,” the company said in a written statement to The Washington Post.

The company said it offered security and human resources services to Ferrill, but did not say whether he had made use of them.

Adam Collins, the company’s chief communications and corporate affairs officer, did not directly address employees’ allegations of a racist culture at the facility, but in a statement, he said that the company investigates “every single complaint” of intolerance or harassment.

“It’s why we have terminated people for behavior we believe is unacceptable. It’s why we have tried to create safe spaces for discussions on diversity and inclusion in the Milwaukee brewery and across our network,” Collins said.

“But there’s no two ways about it. We have more work to do,” Collins said. “Fostering an inclusive and welcoming workplace is something every organization has to work towards each day, and we aren’t going to shy away from our responsibility to take a deep look at our own culture following this event.”

Craig Mastantuono, a lawyer for Ferrill’s family, declined to comment.

Muhammad, who worked at the brewery from 2015 to 2019, said he endured taunts from co-workers about his name and the fact that he is a practicing Muslim. He said people would call him Jamal or Salami.

“I’d hear jokes about me putting a bomb in someone’s car or putting a bomb somewhere in the building,” said Muhammad, 32. “I never took it to management because there was a time when a guy was making a joke in front of a supervisor and the supervisor didn’t say a thing about it.”

Muhammad said the stress of the environment took a toll on his health. He gained weight and was crippled by anxiety. He said he almost called a suicide hotline. Finally, he quit.

Current and former employees said the brewery department was notorious for talk of racism and sexism.

“It’s a good old boys club to this day. There was a saying on the brewery floor — ‘no blacks, no b—–s,’ ” said a current employee who did not give his name for fear of jeopardizing his job. A former brewery floor worker, who did not give his name because he did not want to affect his current employment, said there was “constant harassment. The constant nitpicking. The constant racial things that were done and allowed to be done because our complaints fell on deaf ears.”

Robert Powell, a sanitation worker at the plant from 2013 to 2018, said he saw the n-word scrawled in a bathroom stall in the brewery and a swastika carved into a locker room wall. He recalled a conversation with Ferrill in March 2016, while they were on break watching college basketball games.

“He was a cool guy, didn’t show any type of aggression,” Powell said. But when Powell, who is black, said he was thinking of applying to transfer to the brewery, he said Ferrill had a warning: “They will hate on you down there.”

Raylynne Clayborn, 39, a machinist who worked for the brewery for 13 years until he was fired for missing work in 2018, said there was a “panel room” in the brewery department that served as the central nervous system for making beer. He alleges that white employees hung racist cartoons there — including of monkeys and blackface characters eating watermelon — and they remained there until the black employees removed them.

“We were immune to it; that was the norm. We would just take them down,” he said.

Molson Coors said it is not aware of racist cartoons being displayed at the plant.

Some employees recalled racist acts in other departments of the brewery, a sprawling plant that employs 1,400 people. With its towering red Miller beer sign and mural deeming it “Home of the High Life,” the facility is one of Milwaukee’s most recognizable places. It is also a tourist attraction, where people can pay $10 for tours of the complex, including its packaging and distribution centers and famed beer caves, sampling libations along the way.

Rynale Counce, who worked as a machine operator from 2015 to 2017, recalled an incident in a “drivers break room” where many black employees congregated. On the room’s sign, someone scrawled the n-word in front of “drivers,” Counce said, and wrote “n—–s must die” on a wall.

“These stories aren’t a secret,” said Counce, 37.

The current employee said he witnessed a noose duct-taped to the locker of another black employee around 2012. He said the company investigated but did not figure out who placed the noose on the locker. Molson Coors did not comment on that allegation.

Employees said that the noose on Ferrill’s locker was discussed at a brewery-wide meeting held in the “stables” of the brewery, a historic room that once housed the draft horses but now is a meeting space. Ken Litke, then the brewery manager, led the meeting, employees said.

“He said, ‘Obviously this isn’t right. We don’t tolerate this,’ ” the current employee recalled, adding that the manager told employees to respect each other. “It was the kind of thing you would expect a brewery manager to say.”

Litke, now retired and living in Minnesota, declined to comment, saying it was “not in his best interests” to speak.

Collins said the company has “indeed had all-plant meetings when concerns are raised.”

Electricians earn more than $32 an hour, according to their union, which made some workers afraid to rock the boat for fear of losing good-paying jobs, Counce said.

“The culture of that company was very, very toxic,” Clayborn said. “If I wasn’t making $30 an hour, I wouldn’t be working at a job like that.”

State Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat who is running for mayor of Milwaukee, said she has spoken to employees since the shooting about what she characterized as “a racially toxic environment” at the plant.

“Based on what the colleagues have told me, [Ferrill] had to deal with a lot,” she said. “So do I believe it was a contributing factor? Yes, there’s no question I believe the racial harassment was a contributing factor. I don’t see how it would not be.”

In 1984 — when the Milwaukee plant was still owned by Miller — William K. Coors, then chairman and chief executive of Adolph Coors Co., was quoted saying that black people lack “intellectual capacity.” The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP called for a boycott, and more than 500 Southern California liquor stores stopped selling Coors beer. The company signed agreements with black and Hispanic groups to hire minorities, invest in minority-owned businesses and increase the number of minority distributors.

In 1994, Miller Brewing Company paid $2.7 million to settle a racial harassment suit brought by black workers at the company’s plant in Fulton, N.Y., according to news reports at the time. The workers alleged they had been subjected to harassment that included racist graffiti, nooses and racial slurs broadcast over the brewery’s public address system. The company closed the plant shortly before settling the lawsuit and laid off 900 workers.

That outcome has loomed over concerns about racism in the Milwaukee facility, employees said. Beer sales nationally are already slipping, and Molson Coors announced in October that it is closing its Denver office as part of a corporate restructuring plan. Some of those jobs will move to Milwaukee, but the company will lose between 400 to 500 jobs overall.

Ferrill worked as an in-house electrician in the “powerhouse” utility area of the 82-acre plant.

“His personality made him a target,” said the current employee, who had known Ferrill for more than a decade. “He was a soft-spoken guy.”

Ferrill lived in a modest tan rambler in Milwaukee with his wife and a beloved Doberman that he often walked through the neighborhood. His wife’s Facebook page — now inaccessible — showed a typical middle-class life, with pictures of their grandkids and a trip to see the musical “Hamilton.”

But co-workers said he was struggling at work. He had long suffered chronic back pain that left him frustrated and may have impacted his ability to work, according to lawyer Steven C. Gabert, a personal injury attorney who represented Ferrill after a car accident.

Ferrill told Gabert that his career at Molson Coors made him happy, paid well and allowed him to support his family — his wife, two adult children and a younger daughter — but added that working as an electrician at multiple buildings around the campus was more physically demanding than it seemed.

He was off work for a time on a workers’ compensation claim and became convinced that the company was spying on him and that his house had been broken into, colleagues said.

He expressed that fear to neighbors as well. According to the Associated Press, he told a neighbor, Erna Roenspies, that the company “spies” were checking up on him to make sure he was really sick.

Ferrill’s family issued a statement Friday that said they feel “terrible sadness and heartache over the tragic incident” and that they were “shocked and dismayed to learn of the apparent involvement of our family member.”

Julie Tate in Washington and Dan Simmons in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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