Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Cafferty’s attorney Larry Shea (left) believes his client’s only option is to take legal action. He says that the company’s refusal to look at Bentley’s retraction as well as Cafferty’s heritage shows that something much bigger may be at play.
Emmanuel Cafferty is not a white supremacist. If he were, he would subscribe to a doctrine wherein he admits his own inferiority, as Cafferty is of mostly Mexican descent.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
But during a June 3 drive home from his job as an underground line locator for San Diego Gas & Electric, Cafferty was labeled just that.
Seconds after an unidentified man snapped a photo of Cafferty allegedly flashing a white power gesture during his drive home, Cafferty transformed from a hard-working father to a bigot. The San Diego native became the latest poster boy for online shaming and a victim of so-called cancel culture.
Now, more than four months later, still unemployed and without many job opportunities, Cafferty continues his struggle to peel off the label that has stuck to him and his family.
In early October, Cafferty submitted a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the first step towards a legal claim, against his employer, one of Southern California’s wealthiest and most powerful companies, in hopes of repairing his tattered reputation.
A man named David Bentley accused Cafferty of displaying the OK hand gesture, which in recent years has become linked to the white power movement (because it can be looked at as the letters W and P.) He urged SDG&E to take action.
Bad time to crack his knuckles
June 3, 2020; mass protests erupted across the country over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers. Dozens of people gathered at the intersection of Pomerado and Twin Peaks roads in Poway to demonstrate.
Cafferty passed the gathering on his way home to Ramona. He then made a u-turn to get to a fast-food restaurant for an iced tea. But he changed his mind because of the traffic from the protest. Instead, Cafferty parked in a nearby parking lot to fill out his time sheet.
He drove off after completing his paperwork for the day. A mile and a half down the road, a man in the car next to him began yelling at him. The motorist pointed his cellphone at him, urging Cafferty to keep flashing the hand gesture. Cafferty, with his hand out of the window, looked at him and shrugged. The driver continued to yell before he sped off. Cafferty debated with himself over whether to call his supervisor about the incident before deciding against it.
Little did Cafferty know; the motorist was doing that for him. As Cafferty drove home, the man logged on to Twitter and posted an image of Cafferty, with his left-hand dangling outside of the driver’s window.
The motorist, a man named David Bentley, accused Cafferty of displaying the OK hand gesture, which in recent years has become linked to the white power movement (because it can be looked at as the letters W and P). He urged SDG&E to take action.
In a Twitter response, SDG&E wrote, “Please DM us the location so that we can look into it further. We assure you that at SDG&E, we believe strongly there is no place in our society for discrimination of any kind….”
By the time Cafferty arrived at his home, word of a racist SDG&E worker flashing a white power symbol at anti-racism protesters had traveled across the internet.
“I have called your service line and made a complaint. They have all of the info,” read Bentley’s June 3 tweet.
It wasn’t until Cafferty’s supervisors called him that he learned about the accusations leveled against him.
That evening, Cafferty says, two supervisors came to his home to get his truck, his laptop, and his badge. They told him that SDG&E had launched an investigation and that he needed to report for an interview the following morning.
Cafferty assumed the interview would be his chance to clear up any misinformation.
“I’m a person of color,” Cafferty told me during an October interview. He rocked back and forth as he remembered the day. “If you look at the picture the guy took, I wasn’t doing the white power sign. I thought those two things would be the end of it and I would be exonerated. Not to mention the fact that I support Black Lives Matter.”
Cafferty was wrong.
Shortly after the interview began, He sensed that a decision had already been made. “The first thing the interviewer said was that there were too many holes in my story,” Cafferty recalled. “Here my own company is, comparing my story with some white man who posted these images and his words appear to weigh heavier than mine. That, to me, is discrimination. I remember asking the interviewer, ‘Did you look into this guy? Did you see all of his controversial tweets?’ You know, he called Donald Trump the antichrist 13 times the same day he posted the pictures of me. It didn’t seem to matter.”
Two days later, after a second interview, SDG&E fired Cafferty for violating the company’s public image policy. Now unemployed and possibly unemployable, Cafferty says that single Twitter post changed his life forever. Left with few options, Cafferty has decided to fight what’s come to be known as “cancel culture.” He has done interviews in national publications, and will be featured in an upcoming HBO documentary.
Aim and shame
Public shaming of celebrities and politicians has existed for millennia. In the internet era, the shaming has intensified. Online heckling and harassment has moved from celebrities to everyday people.
“We now live in a society where people have learned they have the ability to destroy or ruin lives with a keypad. They are all quick to judge and slow to consider the truth behind a screen or a story,” says Sue Scheff, an Florida resident, internet safety expert, and author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate.
Scheff says the cancel culture has transitioned from focusing on celebrities and sports stars to everyone, and in some cases, as is the case with Cafferty, wrongly so. “We live in an aim-and-shame culture, adds Scheff. “Wherever we go, there is someone quick to record you at your worst moment. Or maybe you are being tagged inappropriately. Worse, maybe someone looks similar to you and others believe it’s you, and the internet works at lightning speed, your reputation can be gone in minutes.”
Scheff says that repairing the damage from online shaming is neither quick nor easy. “There are some cases where it has taken a victim years to repair the damage done,” added Scheff. “As someone that was a victim of internet defamation and shaming, it took me well over a year to clean up my online reputation, and I am constantly self-aware of my online presence.”
Cafferty knows that all too well. Hours after the Twitter post went viral, he said friends and family logged onto Twitter in an effort to correct the misinformation and curb the shaming. “He is a Mexican man cracking his knuckles,” wrote one family member. “You can clearly see that his fingers aren’t even in the right position to be a white supremacist sign. Or, are you too so ready to ruin anyone’s life that you refuse to see the truth right in front of you?”
But Bentley, Cafferty’s accuser, did not see it that way. “LET IT GO,” he wrote in response. “We have a difference of opinion. If I was cracking my knuckles, I would not have my arm fully extended and use the tip of my finger to do so. What I saw was someone flashing a sign that was inappropriate for what was going on around us.”
Cafferty’s own father, not a Twitter user, decided to confront his son’s accuser the old-fashioned way, in a letter. “We raised our son to be hardworking, ethical, empathetic, kind and of good character,” wrote Cafferty’s father in a June 11, 2020, letter obtained by the Reader. “I was a firefighter and my wife is a social worker who works with vulnerable families.”
Cafferty’s father explained the reason for his son’s hand gestures that day. “We first noted our son fidgeting with his fingers since he was 12 years old. He would stretch and he would constantly crack his knuckles and tap his fingers one by one. Occasionally, he would do both hands at the same time. I would often tease him and say you are doing hand exercises to play video games but I am still going to win. For you to take a lifelong quirk and turn it into something SINISTER has negatively impacted the trajectory of our son’s life.... which has destroyed his family’s livelihood.”
Continued Cafferty’s father, “The irony is you profess to stand for social justice but then you used your WHITE PRIVILEGE to get a person of color fired within hours of your untruthful accusations. You embellished your story to tell the narrative that you wanted! It would have been less cruel if you would have walked up to him and hit him over the head with a HAMMER!
Perhaps you should ponder that day with a RATIONAL MIND and truly revisit your heightened state and do the right thing!”
By June 15, less than two weeks after Bentley posted the image of Cafferty on Twitter, Bentley recanted his accusation against Cafferty to a reporter from NBC San Diego. He told the reporter he must have been “spun up” when posting the image of Cafferty on Twitter.
The damage, however, had been done. SDG&E refused to reverse Cafferty’s firing. “SDG&E stands by its decision to ultimately terminate Mr. Cafferty’s employment after a careful and good faith investigation,” said a company spokesperson. “While our investigation was initiated because a customer reported that Mr. Cafferty had made what appeared to be a white power hand gesture in the vicinity of a Black Lives Matter protest, that was not the full extent of our inquiry.
“After a thorough investigation involving multiple interviews and a detailed review of other information, including GPS data, Mr. Cafferty’s employment was terminated due to a number of considerations, including that he was only six months into his nine-month probationary period, he did not have a satisfactory explanation for why he was in the vicinity of the protest in a company vehicle, he violated company policy by engaging with the customer who took his picture, and he failed to report the incident to his supervisor. We are proud of our commitment to diversity and inclusion and remain steadfast in our approach to the investigation of Mr. Cafferty’s behavior, which was conducted in a manner consistent with our values of respect, fairness, and integrity.”
Cafferty is not convinced. “It all makes me feel so insignificant,” he told me. “It makes me feel like I am so worthless that fidgeting my hands is enough to get me fired.”
And while shedding the stigma that he is a racist is one thing, Cafferty says he is also having to defend his work ethic by proving that SDG&E didn’t have other reasons to fire him.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” Cafferty says. “I think a lot of people feel like, ‘Well, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That there’s no way a corporation like SDG&E would have taken this action without some other reason.’ I know people say that they must have found other things. They didn’t, because there is nothing else. I worked hard to get that job, and I was happy.”
Online shaming expert Scheff says that those posting accusations online in an attempt to call someone out for some untoward behavior should think twice before going public. “Engaging in online shaming is a reflection of our own offline and online character. It’s not attractive. We all need to take a moment to consider the situation before we jump to conclusions. When in doubt, I say, click-out.”
Cafferty’s attorney Larry Shea believes his client’s only option is to take legal action. He says that the company’s refusal to look at Bentley’s retraction as well as Cafferty’s heritage shows that something much bigger may be at play.
“All we wanted was Emmanuel Cafferty’s job back. If SDG&E did that, we were willing to just walk away. But they didn’t do it. They won’t do it. They wouldn’t even discuss it. So, it’s almost like he’s not important enough for that kind of a resolution.
“SDG&E knows this guy [Bentley] backpedaled once he found out he was accusing an Hispanic of being a white supremacist,” said Shea. “The company has no evidence that Cafferty is a white supremacist. None whatsoever. And, that’s because he isn’t. It’s ludicrous to even suggest such a thing. We’re all wrestling with this concept of, what is systemic racism? But to me, it exists when persons of color just don’t count as much. It’s not like 1950s racism, where someone is targeted because of race. It’s more insidious. It’s more structural. It’s denial of equal personal worth. Emmanuel Cafferty’s case shows that [people of color] just aren’t important enough to warrant a thorough investigation at SDG&E. Without any facts showing Cafferty did anything whatsoever wrong, SDG&E sacrificed him to the online mob so that the mob would move on to something else and leave SDG&E alone. That kind of cowardice only shows SDG&E didn’t feel his job was significant enough to defend even when all the facts prove he is innocent. When the accuser recanted, Cafferty still wasn’t important enough to warrant reconsideration. He just isn’t important enough to be treated fairly.”
“It’s impossible to say how much this has affected me,” Cafferty laments. “How do I measure it? I don’t know. One thing I do know is that I hate every minute of this. I hate doing these interviews, and I hate having to defend myself against something that is not true.”