I’m not unzipping my jacket anymore
Trayon Christian, a 19 year old African-American man, purchased a $350 Ferragamo belt from Barney’s on Madison Avenue in New York and when he got two blocks away, two undercover NYPD police officers handcuffed him and held him in a cell for two hours. They questioned how he could afford such an expensive belt. When they verified that he had used his own debit card and not a stolen one, he was released. He is suing.
He just may be the poster child for a newly publicized “crime,” Shopping While Black. Or, as some call it, “Shop and Frisk.”
Twenty-four hours after the Christian case hit the news, 21 year old Kayla Phillips, came forward saying four NYPD police stopped her three blocks from Barney’s after she’d purchased a $2,500 Céline bag.
And actor Rob Brown of HBO’s “Treme” was handcuffed in Macy’s in New York and detained for an hour after he purchased a $1,350 gold Movado watch. He was released when his payment information was verified.
It’s one thing to get the criminal treatment while browsing in a store and another to be stopped by police after you’ve made a purchase and you’re down the street. New York police say larceny is a big problem on Madison Avenue but is that the best way to combat it? Detain people until they can prove their innocence? And how many white folks are going to come forward claiming the same thing has happened to them?
Being a recipient of racial discrimination is often a mystifying experience. Some may think minorities are overly sensitive to bias and “go looking for it.” “I’m a victim! What’s Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton’s phone number?” That hasn’t been my experience. In fact, I’ll take you through it.
A new Walmart opened in my town, and I was thrilled. When I first visited it, I made a beeline to the electronics department. I’m a techno geek. I shopped there a few more times making various purchases. One day I was heading to the exit after buying a couple of CDs. A man stopped me and told me he was Walmart security and asked to see my receipt. That didn’t faze me because some stores like Costco, Sims Club and Fry’s check receipts when you leave. But I did notice that no one else had to show his or her receipt.
After verifying I’d made the purchase of my CDs, he asked me to unzip and open my jacket. I asked why and he told me it was a routine check. All around us I could see other people leaving without undergoing a “routine check.” Having nothing to hide, I unzipped my jacket and held it open.
With every step toward my car, my face burned with humiliation and anger. People saw me standing there opening my jacket. I wasn’t guilty of anything, but it wouldn’t look that way to the witnesses seeing me being singled out and searched.
I thought back to what I did in the store, trying to figure out if I did anything to make anyone suspicious. But I didn’t. I hadn’t fumbled with my jacket or unzipped it or looked around suspiciously or anything. I just browsed items like any shopper.
You don’t want to believe that race could be the factor. I don’t walk around feeling like a victim. So when I do run into disparate treatment, I try to logically go through other causes in my head until I’m left with nothing else but race. And it’s a defeating feeling because that’s something I have nothing to do with. It’s soul crushing to realize that, even today, to too many people, your skin is your sin.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’d been stopped and asked to open my jacket in a store. It’s a strange phenomenon to be followed in a store like a criminal, but still have a hard time when trying to find someone to help you. It’s depressing to think that if you’re a minority and you pay cash for a big ticket item, the assumption is you’re a drug dealer or a thief. It’s scary now to think of the police detaining you after a purchase until you prove you’re legit. How messed up is that?
Race can certainly be part of a criminal profile. If I’m investigating the Mafia, I’m focusing on Italians. If I’m investigating the Aryan Brotherhood, it’d be ridiculous to focus on Mexicans. And if we’re chasing Al-Qaeda, keeping tabs on Chinese people is probably a mistake.
The problem comes when race is the beginning and end of your profile. There have to be facts. Probable cause. Something that makes you suspect that individual other than just their racial makeup. Rounding up all Italians is a pretty inefficient way of busting the Mob. If a black person walks into a high-end retail store and automatically employees are thinking criminal or how’d they get the money to shop here, you’re already in trouble. Making a purchase isn’t a crime. I shouldn’t have to give someone my pay stub to show them how I earned the money to shop in their store.
I’m all for busting shoplifters and identity thieves. Throw the book at them. But make sure you have evidence. Being black with money isn’t evidence of a crime.