Shopping While Black?

The long, white arm of the law

Upon arriving at the sprawling Albertville outlet mall on a balmy morning in April, Albertha Thomas had two objectives, she says. Accompanied by her two sisters and her cousin, she was looking for presents to bring along on a visit to her native Liberia, which she'd fled during its brutal civil war. And flush from her latest paycheck as a nurse's assistant, Thomas says, she wasn't opposed to spoiling herself a little, too.

After scoring shoes at Nike and buying a stack of shirts at the Gap, Thomas and her fellow dark-skinned shopping companions, all in their late 20s and early 30s, were lured by a promising sale at Guess?. They picked out T-shirts, passing them around to see who they looked best on, and were waiting to try on some capri pants in the fitting rooms when the foursome was met by Sara Manion, the chic and slender blond-haired manager of the store.

Manion asked the women to follow her to the back room. Waiting for them there was Wright County Sheriff's Deputy Aaron Myren, a husky man in a beige uniform.

Manion and her employees, having endured a spate of recent shoplifting, were sensitive to potential thieving. And the four women struck them as suspicious.

According to the deputy's incident report, the store manager reported that Thomas and her friends had been passing T-shirts and other clothing back and forth to each other underneath the display tables, and were walking around the store carrying $1,000 worth of merchandise. Their behavior "appeared similar to actions of shoplifters," Manion told the officer, according to his report, and she wanted him to check them out.

"You're kidding me," Thomas said, her anger rising. She and her friends had been closely trailed by three employees from the moment they'd walked in. Just when exactly were they supposed to have tried stealing something? "We don't do that," she adamantly asserted, pulling out her wallet and producing 15 crisp $100 bills. "We work for our money."

The deputy asked Thomas to put her money away and told the women they were free to go, according to his report. But they didn't leave without telling Manion that they felt certain they'd been racially profiled, and this wouldn't be the end of it.

After getting home, they consulted the yellow pages for a lawyer. The first one they called was David Wilson, a Minneapolis immigration attorney. Wilson saw the case as fitting a pattern. In 2005, after Macy's was accused by then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of racial profiling, it agreed to overhaul security at its stores and offered $600,000 in penance. Last year, an Oregon Safeway supermarket paid $44,000 to settle with a black man wrongly accused of shoplifting after exchanging a cut of meat at the deli counter.

The four women filed suit against Guess? in September, alleging a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and of false imprisonment.

"Stores have the right to protect themselves," Wilson says. "But they shouldn't be able to do it based on color of skin."

Guess?, through attorney Fred Finch, declined to comment, but the company's filed response to the lawsuit makes clear the chain will argue that race played no role in the incident. The women were "mishandling the clothes and tossing the clothes over and under the table tiers," the response reads.

Albertha Thomas, seated in the living room of the split-level Maple Grove home that she owns along with her three shopping companions, says the lawsuit isn't an attempt to line their pockets.

In her five years living in an overwhelmingly white suburb, Thomas says she's never felt exposed to racism. But that morning at the outlet left her feeling embarrassed and intimidated, she says. "Guess? can't be doing this to people. It needs to be taught a lesson."

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