Shoplifting vs. Robbing the Store

Do you remember this famous scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard wander through a shop full of novelty items, lampshades and cutlery looking for something to steal for the sheer thrill of it.

Turner Classic Movies has this scene on its web page with the headline “Ever Steal Anything?”

Do you remember the episode of House where the hospital is on lockdown and Dr. Wilson and Dr. “Thirteen” Hadley play truth or dare in the cafeteria? Dr. Hadley dares the uptight Dr. Wilson to steal a dollar from the cash register. He gets caught and has to put it back.

Do you remember in 2002 when Winona Ryder was caught boosting thousands of dollars of jewelry from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills? She later went on Saturday Night Live to parody her own misdeeds. Time Magazine did a story on the Ryder theft and it reported that store owners turn over only 24% of the perpetrators they catch shoplifting to the police, in spite of the fact that shoplifting in the U.S. costs retailers more than $10 billion a year.

We can all agree that it is illegal and wrong to steal. In practice sometimes we treat it as criminality sometimes as mischief. There is “robbing a store” and then there is “shoplifting.”

What we call it depends a great deal on who is doing the stealing.

racistedit1-thumb-565x423On the left is a badly photoshopped image that went viral. Jarnell Hasson actually carried a sign that read “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he leaves home.”

The Riverfront Times, which had originally published the undoctored photo reported that the man who did the photshopping

…created the image because, “it captured mine, and many others, frustration with this whole situation.”

More than 28,000 people shared the faked photo after…a Maplewood native who’s owned a south-county sign business for almost twenty years, posted it on Facebook with the (very incorrect) description: “You can’t make this up!!!!!”

… [The man who posted the image to Facebook] says he is surprised and saddened by the backlash to the photo he posted because “qualified investigators at all levels of government” concluded that Brown robbed the convenience store before his death.

Before I go on, let me first address the implication of the doctored sign that black people are always stealing from stores. FBI data show that approximately 70 percent of shoplifting arrestees are white. One study published in 2000 by two professors in Minnesota in the Journal of Education for Business found evidence that the typical shoplifter in their state was a white female between the ages of 25 and 50.

So there’s that.

No, Michael Brown was not an innocent.  You must know a teenager or two who is rebellious, troubled, in with the wrong crowd. He’s gotten into fights, dabbled in recreational drugs or underage drinking, stolen on a dare or to look cool for his friends, took his mom’s car out for a spin before he technically had his license, drove while intoxicated. Maybe it was you when you were young.

He is a good kid, he made a mistake…

(I was not even going to mention Ethan Couch, the teen who pled “affluenza” and was sentenced to rehab after killing four people while driving drunk, but I find I cannot help myself.)

When it is you, or your child, or a member of your community do you interpret these things as the actions of a dangerous thug who must be stopped at any cost? How we interpret the crime and the dangerousness of the perpetrator depends to a great extent on whether or not we see him as being “like us.”

An authority figure (a judge or a police officer) looks at a large, African-American teenager and makes a quick calculation. All kinds of mental associations go into that split second judgement. What type of person is this? Is he a good kid? How should I approach him? Is he armed? Should I be afraid? The teenager looks at the authority figure and in a split second he makes a judgement. Am I going to get a fair hearing with him? Is he going to treat me with respect? Is he going to shoot me? Should I be afraid?

Those perceptions are not easily legislated away, but we need to be honest about them and aware of them so we can devise ways for our system to correct for them.

Michael Brown robbed the store.

A person should not have to be innocent of all crime to avoid being shot to death.

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