Wal-Mart, the Heart of America and Racism’s Ugly Head

Ah yes…

The issue of race has again reared its ugly head… this time, at Wal-Mart.

In 2007 a black woman named Heather- then a college student from New Orleans- was in Kennet, MO to visit family. She took a trip to the local Wal-Mart with her teenaged cousin to pick up a few things, and after shopping, the two opted to stand in seperate check-out lanes. Heather realized at some point that her cousin’s line was moving faster than her own. She left the line she was standing in and joined him, butting in front of several patrons to do so.

The customers that Heather moved in front of were not happy that she wasn’t willing to wait her turn, and told her so. At one point, the customer directly behind Heather put her things onto the conveyor belt while the two exchanging heated words. Heather, in response, angrily moved the woman’s things off the belt, replacing them with her own merchandise.

Heather claims that while this was occuring, other customers began hurling racial slurs at her. Witnesses dispute this, saying Heather was the one hurling insults, and that she was so loud, patrons at the rear of the store could actually hear her. She went “ballistic”, they say.

Upon paying for her items, Heather became further enraged when the cashier refused to give her back her change, opting instead to call the police.

The officers, upon arrival, stated that they tried to escort Heather to the parking lot, asking that she leave the facility because she was causing a scene. They said she became extremely beligerent, and was cursing, yelling that she wasn’t going anywhere without her change. Heather states that while attempting to escort her to the parking lot, one of the officers told her she should “go back to the ghetto”.

The incident ultimately escalated to the point that the officers chose to arrest Heather. When attempting to place the handcuffs on her, it is alleged that Heather kicked one officer in the shin, and busted the other officer’s lip. She was booked on charges of resisting arrest, assaulting police officers and disturbing the peace. While being placed in the police car, Heather’s cousin claims he saw her getting her head, repeatedly, slammed against the vehicle. When asked why they were being so rough with her, the officers responded that “she cursed”.

If  convicted, she was looking at a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Heather has always claimed the charges were blown up, and disputes all of the allegations against her but two- she admits she did switch check-out lanes at the Wal-Mart to join her cousin in line, and she does admit to touching another customers merchandise after it was placed on  the conveyor belt.

She has always believed that she was the target of racism.

The incident has opened old wounds in Kennet, MO, a small town with a history of racial intolerance.

Minorities- mostly black and hispanic- have for years accused the all-white Kennet police department of racial profiling. The ACLU staged a peaceful protest in Kennet after Heather’s arrest. The KKK joined the crowd of onlookers during the protest, carrying signs with swastikas and Klan slogans. At the end of the march, officers reported finding business cards allegedly printed by The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan stating that the Klan had been there, and that the “next visit will not be social”.

Heather, this past week, finally stood trial for the charges against her. Her lawyer, the well-known Missouri criminal defense attorney Scott Rosenblum, did not use the issue of race in Heather’s defense. It is important to note, she has no criminal history, has graduated from college since the incident, married, and is a school teacher.

Just as the case was given to the jury for deliberations, Heather reached a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for their dropping the more serious felony charges against her, Heather has agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. She will do no jail time, instead receiving a suspended sentence, one year of unsupervised probation, and will attend court-ordered anger management classes. If she completes the class and breaks no laws over the course of the next 12 months, the conviction will be sealed, and will not be part of her permanent record.

So what really happened that day in 2007 at the Wal-Mart in Kennet, MO? Was a woman unfairly targeted because of her race? Or was the woman, who just happens to be black, at fault here?

Unfortunately, we will likely never know.

Racism is all too real, and sadly, small town America is not exempt from this ugly fact. In actuality, many would claim small town America is where racism is at its worst.

The problem with this particular case is that we wouldn’t even be having a racial discussion at all, had Heather behaved herself. Had she stood in line, not butted in front of anyone, simply paid for her things and gone home, none of  this- not her arrest or her subsequent racial allegations- ever would have come to pass. By her own recollection, no one had given her any trouble whatsoever until she jumped in line and was confronted for doing so. It’s not as if she had been harassed from the moment she came into the store… it wasn’t until after she began displaying inappropriate behavior that people began reacting and saying inappropriate things.

It is not in dispute that Kennet, MO has had racial problems in the past. It is important to note, however, that the ACLU has never gotten itself involved in that particular town until Heather graced the scene. 

Seems to me that the ACLU would have had more success in bringing this town’s racial issues to light had they chosen to protest on behalf of some of the many minorities that have been targeted in that town while they were actually obeying the law. People who were simply driving through the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time, and were stopped by racially profiling police officers. Not some half-crazed black woman who was being treated just fine- as just another customer- until she decided to raise a ruckus, cause a scene, and show her ass. 

As minorities, we must stop using racism as a defense to our own bad behavior. We cannot expect to be taken seriously when, by our own admission, we are treated badly after behaving badly.

We have to do better.

The ACLU and the NAACP both have picked some terrible examples of late in an attempt to showcase racism in America. Be it this particular case or the one in Cambridge, MA when a black Harvard Law Professor acted a damn fool and was consequently arrested by a white police officer.

In both cases, racism was never a factor until after the minority in question behaved completely inappropriately.

Heather committed a crime in Kennet, MO, and unfortunately, because of her bad behavior, that town’s legitimate history of racism will not be discussed. We have missed yet another opportunity to hold a responsible conversation about the ills of racial disparity in America today. Heather has given the people of Kennet, MO, an excuse not to have to analyse their own behaviors and prejudices. They can simply look to her outlandish behavior, shrug their shoulders and say, “Just another black person behaving badly”.

The sad truth is that in this case, and in too many others, they’re right.

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9 thoughts on “Wal-Mart, the Heart of America and Racism’s Ugly Head

  1. This is a simple case of a person with an attitude clashing with people who expect manners.

    The attitude is something I have heard white people complain about a lot these days. Here is an example of the typical complaint; why is it that whenever I go to a fast-food joint that’s run by a bunch of black folks, my order is messed up and the workers are rude? White folks get the third degree all the time when going out to eat. Just the other night, I was sitting at the drive through window waiting forever for the employees to finish their conversation. After which the guy just sticks his hand out and expects me to put my card in his hand. He doesn’t even say sh!t to me about making me wait for so dam long while he stood there and told a story to everyone. So I got mad and did a burn out of the drive through leaving a trail of smoke behind me. I was so mad I wanted to break his nose. It wasn’t so much that he made me wait; it was the absolute disrespect he showed. People don’t like being treated like that. It’s not racist to get pissed over being treated wrong. Most people are calm enough to walk away but this kind attitude is going to boil over with people eventually. This is a common complaint I hear all the time. There are 3 Wendy’s in my town. Only one of them has good service. The reason is obvious in a lot of people’s minds; they’re just not going to say it.

    If you are in a small town and someone says hi or waves and you ignore them, they might just grab your arm ask what your deal is. The LA, NY, and big city rude attitude will get you in a lot of trouble in the Mid-West. There are social norms that should be followed. Any person in their right mind would simply ask if it’s ok to cut in line. People will let you do it. If they don’t let you, they are wrong and then you have a story. An example is N.Y., the people aren’t going to let you cut there because they generally don’t care about your emergency. But if you don’t ask in small town America, you’re messing up big time. They can make this into something its not and all that is going to happen is the same that happen to the police officer. Nothing.

    Why is it that many black Americans always rally around someone because of their skin color? You gotta stop doing this. Either a person is right or wrong. The longer you keep doing this the worse everythings going to get. Besides, why where they standing in two different lines to begin with if they where together? Probably because they planned on moving to which line was moving faster. I’ve done this before with a friend but only to hand him a small item like a drink or something. I would never push someone’s stuff back like that. If they protested over a small item I added to my friends stuff, I would just say fine and go wait in line. No reason to start an altercation because I’m impatient. I have a feeling that she was much ruder about it. If a guy pushed my stuff back like that, he wouldn’t make it to his car without a fight. If a women did that, I would leave all my crap on the conveyor and tell the store I’m not buying sh!t unless you kick her out. Everyone would follow suit and the store would have no choice. I wouldn’t do that for the guy because he deserves a better lesson than that.

    This whole thing will get blown up and go nowhere.

  2. Hi SpiritOfTruth-

    What you say is sad but true.

    I was wondering when I was writing this post if this woman thinks it was worth it. She got herself into a lot of trouble over her unwillingness to wait in line for a few extra minutes. She was initially looking at 15 years in prison, all because of a few minutes’ worth of impatience.

    I think some black people feel that it is ok to have an attitude with white people- be it black workers at a fast food joint or black patrons at the neighborhood Wal-Mart- because of the racism they have had to endure for so long. Personally, I think it has to stop- I think treating people badly is wrong, no matter the color of anyone’s skin. It’s just wrong.

    It sounds elementary, but to me it really is quite simple. Minorities know what it is like to be treated badly- many of us have experienced it first hand. In my mind, that fact alone should be reason enough for us to strive to treat others with dignity and respect, because we KNOW what it’s like to be treated like crap. We, as decent human beings, should not want to be the cause of someone else’s negative experience, having been subjected to so much of it ourselves.

    Now that doesn’t excuse the real racism that still exists, and Kennet, MO certainly has its share of it. I was saddened to hear about the KKK showing up at the ACLU’s protest. Sad that they’re still powerful enough in some places to even make their presence known.

    It is such a shame that racist people have been handed yet another excuse to not only keep their bigoted views in tact, but to avoid having to be held accountable for them.

    The ACLU needs to seek out those people who are legitimate law abiding citizens that are ongoing targets of racism. Trust me, there are plenty of them out there. When will they learn to stay away from cases like this one?

    I have a friend- a black male friend- who was pulled over one night while driving on a dark stretch of highway. He wasn’t breaking any laws, and was thoroughly confused when he saw the cop’s lights in his rear-view mirror. My friend was asked to step out of the vehicle. He had his car searched, his plates ran, and even had a gun held to his head. He was asked a number of questions- “why are you in this neighborhood?” “Where are you headed to?” Finally, as the policie were preparing to let him go (with no charges or tickets, obviously), they explained why they had pulled him over.

    The reason?

    They had received a report of a black male at a neighboring gas station that was suspected of stealing a package of Ho-Ho’s.

    The theft of a snack warranted a gun to the head? Of course not. My friend wasn’t armed in any way, nor was he a threat whatsoever. This was racial profiling at its worst, and it is inexcusable.

    Why isn’t the ACLU taking up those causes? I believe humans- regardless of color- would be very unhappy to learn that these sorts of things still happen today, and that such incidents are not infrequent. Many people- whites included- would find themselves disgusted if they were made aware of those situations.

    This woman at Wal-Mart? It’s ridiculous. I’m a firm believer that if one decides to act a damn fool in the presence of police officers- especially if one chooses to target those police officers- they deserve anything and everything they get for doing so. This lady at Wal-Mart is lucky she didn’t get her ass tasered when she kicked that cop in the shin, or worse when she busted the other officer in the lip.

    Honestly, I would have knocked her head upside the side of the police car too, had it been me. And not because she’s black, but because she was being a bitch and I’m sure my lip would be hurtin’ right where she cracked me in it.

  3. Strength comes not from diversity alone; strength comes from UNITY of the DIVERSE. Unity of the, none diverse is stronger than a chaotic diverse. But nothing is stronger than Unity of the Diverse. With unity of our diverse we have the power to be a beacon of light in a dark world. If we can not unify the diverse and people continue to always side based on color of skin and not riotousness of action, the wicked will destroy us all.

  4. Maybe I’m out of line, but I sort of feel the situation got out of control when the cashier refused to give her her change, and called the police instead.
    That would be enough to get my blood boiling, and once you’ve lost it, you’re more than likely to say or do things you normally wouldn’t.

    1. @ Ian-

      I don’t think you’re out of line at all, I just think we assess the situation a little differently. I think lots of people contributed to an out of control situation in Kennet, MO.

      In my mind, however, it really all began when Heather broke her place in line, butted in front of other customers and then dumped someone else’s stuff off the counter to prove a point. She ruined her own credibility at that point.

      Now, had she waited in line like everyone else, paid for her merchandise and THEN the cashier refused to give her change back, I think I would have seen this differently.

      Kennet has an ugly history (unfortunately, because I live in Missouri, I’d heard some scary stories about the palce way before this Wal-Mart incident). That being said, once anyone- black or white- behaves in such a completely inappropriate way (not just butting in line, messing with another person’s merchandise, but also the assault of two police officers), any valid point they may have had prior to breaking the law becomes moot.

      I was actually surprised to learn the ACLU (Eastern Missouri chapter) got quite as involved in this as they did.

      It’s an unfortunate situation all the way around, but I am really having a tough time seeing the woman in this story as a victim in any way.

      Thanks for weighin’ in!

  5. I don’t think she should have kept the change. She should have given her change and just called the cops. She could have refused service to begin with. But if she refused service it would have looked really bad anyway. I’m thinking that she went ahead with everything until the customers started getting irate. Personally I would have told her to wait in line after she pushed the other ladies stuff. Before that I might have just assumed she was joining her friend. As far as keeping her change. I would be mad if that happen to me. I have a feeling she was already yelling before that.

    1. Interesting take, SpiritOfTruth. I always thought she kept the woman’s change as a means to keep her there until the police arrived.

      I just figured had the cashier given the lady her money back, the lady would have simply left the store. Personally, having her leave wouldn’t have bothered me at all, but if the store was looking to file a police report or whatever, that might have been a good way to get her to stick around.

  6. They shouldn’t have taken her money to begin with. Just called the cops. Problem solved. I have a theory that the change thing might have come about after she stormed out of the store. She might have actually forgot it in her rage and the cops got her and wouldn’t let her back in. Something just doesn’t seem right about this. Speculation really.

    1. I was wondering myself, when I first learned about the story, why the cashier checked the woman out to begin with. I would have refused to ring her up until she went to the back of the line and waited her turn like everyone else.

      I also fleetingly wondered if the cashier really did, in fact, choose not to give her change to her. It almost sounded like one of those things someone comes up with off the top of their head to try and excuse their behavior- as in, “Tell him to give me my change back and I’ll calm down!”. I think it would have been difficult at that moment, assuming she paid cash, for the cashier to prove or disprove whether the lady had been given her change or not. They would have had to shut down the register and immediately count the drawer to determine that fact.

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