I am not an active environmentalist. I am not fanatical about water conservation through low-flow or rain barrels, I don’t compost as a rule, and I haven’t yet had cause to rely on low VOC paint. But I do try to recycle wherever possible, and, in the case of grocery shopping try to reduce my reliance on plastic bags. What I do get I reuse as garbage bags or return to stores that have recycling receptacles available. But my main method of reduction lies in reusable cloth bags. I have bought a number of store-specific bags from the grocers who offer them, and also have a few generic bags for other stores. I leave them in the back of my car so that I can remember to bring them in—though I often have to remind some cashiers to use my bags instead.
A local Asian market I frequent is one of the stores I typically use my bags. Since I usually shop at slower times of day due to my work schedule, I had had no issues using my bags at this store, save the occasional cashier reminder. But I wound up having to go one evening, close to closing time, when I am typically in for the night. But the hubby requested milk, and as the specific brand of milk was the least expensive I had found in my area, I rushed off to get some. I went into the store as usual with my grocery bag looped on my wrist; since all I was getting would fit in one single bag I bypassing the shopping baskets with the intention of using my bag for that function. Incidentally, this also helps me to stick to my shopping list and not pick up impulse items. I was on a mission to walk straight to the refrigerated cases, pick up my milk, pay for it and get back home. On my way back there I noticed a police officer standing guard. I had never seen security in the store, but it made sense, particularly for the late hour. I was mildly comforted by this fact until as I stepped toward the dairy section the officer stopped me and told me I needed to check my bag at the front of the store. Perplexed, I told him it was a grocery bag and I was merely coming to grab my selection and head toward the register. He insisted that I should have checked my bag and then told me that I could not conceal my groceries inside the bag. Now confused AND aggravated, I walked past him and picked up two jugs of milk in my hands, tucking the bag under my arm. As I walked to the register, I noticed him moving in my peripheral vision—this zealot was FOLLOWING ME TO THE REGISTER. Cue my shift from aggravated to fully pissed. As a light-skinned black woman, I can’t say that I can remember an instance in my life where someone had profiled me; but as I had a short, natural hairstyle and was wearing a bandanna and some less than pristine casual clothes (I was in the middle of housekeeping and have no time to change if I was to get to the store before closing), I had the niggling suspicion that this was to be my initiation. “Officer Friendly” (sarcasm sign raised high) had the unmitigated gall to stand at the register two lines away from me and watch my transaction with the cashier. In the course of it, I asked my cashier if the manager was available (she was not) and who was responsible for hiring the store security and if they were available. Upon being told that no manager was available at the time, I complained about the treatment I had just been subjected to, making sure the officer could clearly hear that I was not planning to meekly let this slide. After completing my purchase (and making sure that my items were bagged in the cloth tote I had brought with me), the officer precedes me out of the store. Since he seems so concerned inside the store about me being a potential thief, I decided to show him my two gallons of milk and my receipt at the door despite him watching me fully and legally complete my transaction. The officer proceeds to exhibit the most belligerent behavior I’ve ever seen, telling me to stop “shoving” the receipt in his face and pointing to a photocopied paper side outside the store about checking large bags upon entering the store. He then proceeds to tell me about this “concealment” statute in Louisiana state law that implies that the mere action of placing my groceries in an opaque storage container displayed intent to steal and was a detainable offense—i.e., I could be arrested for carrying two jugs of milk in a canvas bag, even if I was carrying them to the register for payment. At this point I take a pen from my purse and ask for his name and badge number so that I can not only report this unnecessarily abusive treatment to the store manager AND his immediate superior, but to prevent me from doing something out of my immense anger that would be a bigger offense than stealing and get me arrested after all. He angrily complied, threatens me with the statute again and storms off back into the store.
I leave with the information and the intent to look up the statute as soon as I get home, as well as return to the store the next morning to enlighten the manager about the interaction. Of course, it takes me a few minutes to calm myself enough to safely drive home. QUITE a few minutes. But I check the web and, sure enough, my state in its infinite wisdom drafted the following statute (as it pertained to my given situation):
A. Theft of goods is the misappropriation or taking of anything of value which is held for sale by a merchant, either without the consent of the merchant to the misappropriation or taking, or by means of fraudulent conduct, practices, or representations. An intent to deprive the merchant permanently of whatever may be the subject of the misappropriation or taking is essential and may be inferred when a person:
(1) Intentionally conceals, on his person or otherwise, goods held for sale.
(3) Transfers goods from one container or package to another or places goods in any container, package, or wrapping in a manner to avoid detection.
(This is the same state that has statutes on thefts of crawfish, alligator and anhydrous ammonia. Not to mention one actually titled “Cheating and Swindling.” Our politicians CAN’T know they signed this into law….)
So basically, using anything outside of a basket or my bare hands to carry groceries around the store—even including TO THE REGISTER—can be called shoplifting or “theft of goods” by an officer depending on their estimation and/or mood. Being on the fairer-skinned side of Black (not to mention the more upstanding side of honesty), I am not accustomed to being profiled, nor the feelings of anger, annoyance and discomfiture that go along with being accused of wrongdoing. What infuriated me most was the inference that even the appearance of intent to steal was cause enough for a jaded, narrow-minded quota-obsessed officer to arrest me. Me—the type of person who will turn back to the register for a missed item or even go back to a store if undercharged—or even not charged at all. I realize that the officer had no way of knowing that by looking at me; then again, outside of my sweats and natural hair (read: short Afro), I don’t think anything about me screamed “shoplifter.” Well, I’m guessing my Afro did, as I have seen many a bedraggled non-black shopper in similar attire not get hassled for their canvas shopping bags. I realize that back in the 1950s people actually dressed up to shop but it will be a cold summer in New Orleans if I have to put on a flouncy dress and pumps to go buy some milk and not get harassed.
I was not able to return to the store the following day; in fact it was quite a while before I was able to get to the store. When I did go, I stood in front of the empty manager’s office virtually ignored for at least 20 minutes until a cashier asked if they could help me. I asked if the manager was in, and of course the answer was no. I then got the manager’s name and asked what her regular hours were. I was told that she usually comes in to the store around 8 am and is there until 12 noon on most days. I have not returned to that store since.
I may go back one day to ask about their bag policy and whether or not that extends to the use of environmentally-friendly shopping bags, and to let her know the perils of hiring overzealous security with regard to her business. I honestly believe that if the manager knew what happened, they would recognize the potential negative impact such an event could have on their profit margin and community image. I know many of my friends who read my Facebook blasts who will no longer (or even never) frequent that establishment, and while it is not my goal to penalize a business because of one shortsighted contract employee, I would prefer my shopping experience to be hassle-free. Even if that means paying a few more dollars for a gallon of milk.