A Matter of Principle

Do Minneapolis police help businesses discriminate?

Experience has taught Mary Fletcher to take nothing for granted. She lived through years of violence and upheaval in her native Liberia. She left for the United States in 1987 after she was told her husband, a political prisoner, had been killed. She tried to make a life for herself and her children here, sending money back home to relatives who were enduring civil war. Years later she was reunited with her husband, who in fact was still alive.

After all that, you'd expect her to remain unfazed by the little indignities we all face in the course of a day. But Fletcher's struggles have made her all the more aware of the principles at stake every time you leave those slights, however small they may seem, unchecked. Perhaps that explains why she's gone so far over the past three years to fight back against the affront she says she experienced on May 28, 1998.

That evening, according to court papers, Fletcher and her daughter Jean Teamah drove to the Tom Thumb convenience store on the corner of 30th Street and Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, which is near their home. Because Fletcher has difficulty walking, she asked her daughter to go into the store and buy her $20 worth of lottery tickets. Fletcher gave her daughter pre-marked computer cards for five tickets with the numbers she had chosen for the Cash4Life and Daily 3 lottery games. She expected the transaction to take only a few minutes.

Mary Fletcher says this store cost her a Cash4Life jackpot
Craig Lassig
Mary Fletcher says this store cost her a Cash4Life jackpot

As the sales clerk ran the computer cards through the lottery machine, however, it issued only four of the five tickets, and the clerk, a black man, tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Concerned that the transaction was taking such a long time, Fletcher eventually went into the store to ask what the problem was. At that point, the store's assistant manager, Lisa Marcy, who is white, told Fletcher she should buy lottery tickets when the store was not so busy. Fletcher said she hadn't known the store was busy, and asked again to buy the tickets. Marcy refused to sell Fletcher the four tickets that had been issued.

Fletcher and Teamah complained that Marcy was refusing to serve them because they were black, and told Marcy she was a racist. Marcy then told the two to get out, and called 911, asking the operator to send the police because customers were acting unruly. The operator asked the race of the customers, and said she would send a squad. When the police arrived, one officer asked Marcy whom she wanted removed from the store, and then told Fletcher and Teamah to leave. Fletcher protested that it was unfair that the police officers didn't ask for her side of the story before they ejected her from the store. Plus, she still wanted to buy her lottery tickets. The officers were unmoved, however, and told Fletcher and Teamah that they would be arrested if they entered the store again.

And here's the kicker: Fletcher says she kept the computer cards she had used to select her lottery numbers. The next day, she discovered that one of them had been the winning ticket in the Cash4Life game, which would have guaranteed her $1,000 a week for life. Though it seems more like a Hollywood contrivance than real life, Fletcher insists that the story, no matter how farfetched, is true.

Fletcher and her daughter have filed a lawsuit against Tom Thumb Food Markets Inc. and the City of Minneapolis in U.S. District Court. In their lawsuit, the two women allege that Tom Thumb discriminated against them because of their race, and that the City of Minneapolis aided in that discrimination by failing to independently investigate their claims of prejudice. Moreover, the lawsuit claims that Tom Thumb makes a practice of calling the police to get rid of customers they don't wish to serve--often for racially biased reasons. For Fletcher, the suit argues, the discrimination means she lost out on lottery winnings that her attorneys calculate would have totaled more than $800,000.

Attorneys for Tom Thumb and the City of Minneapolis, however, say the case is frivolous. They say that Fletcher and Teamah are simply opportunists out to make a fast and easy buck.

"This was never about that," declares Jill Waite, one of Fletcher's lawyers. "This was about being wronged and not wanting this to happen to other people." They are asking to be compensated for lost lottery winnings, but they are more interested in fighting for the underlying principle. This case, they say, is no less important than the racial profiling issues that have recently garnered so much local and national attention.

Fletcher claims that the lottery incident on May 28 was not the first time she had experienced discrimination by Lisa Marcy. Earlier that month Fletcher asked to use the restroom, only to be told there was no public restroom in the store. A few days later, Fletcher watched as a white man made the same request to Marcy and was given a key to the facility. On another occasion, Fletcher recalls, she tried to buy lottery tickets using loose change, but Marcy told her she would not accept the pile of pennies, nickels, and dimes.

Next Page »