Cobble Hill, Brooklyn had gentrified over the 1980s and I took advantage, opening Shakespeare’s Sister, a café and gift store across from the Cobble Hill Cinema in 1994. The neighborhood, now less Italian than it had been, was quite diverse. My employees demonstrated this. They included immigrants, out-of-work actors, musicians awaiting their big breaks, Latino-Americans and African-Americans. One from this last group, Kwami (I’ve changed his name), came to work for me sometime in 1995. He made no secret of his plan: He wanted to learn the café business with an eye toward opening his own place over in Prospect Heights, another gentrifying neighborhood but one a few years behind Cobble Hill.
To reach my café, one had to pass through the store; the two operations could not be easily seen, one from the other. Most of our goods for sale were in the front, but we displayed art in the café and had used books for sale there along with a few other items including a number of small statues from Thailand and Cambodia, mostly images of Buddha.
One day, while Kwami was working as barista in the café and I was working the front cash register, I heard a commotion from the back. A small white guy burst from the café, hustling toward the door, just ahead of someone shouting, “He just stole a statue!”
Another voice: “And he emptied the tip jar!”
Kwami, a rather large man, hurtled from the back just as the thief had wrenched open the front door. He reached it before it closed again but his quarry was already sprinting across the street toward the cinema. Energized by the threat of losing his tips, Kwami flew after him, tackling him under the marquee.
If it hadn’t happened so fast, I would have stopped Kwami, and would even have replaced his tips from store funds. It’s really not worth chasing a shoplifter, I had learned from experience, and, even in liberal Brooklyn, I did not like the idea of a cop seeing a big black guy chasing a white squirt. This was in the nineties and incidents of African-American males were not being documented by the smartphones that did not yet exist—but all Americans knew that young black men were judged perpetrators almost immediately when focused on by police.
I did not want to see Kwami roughed up.
I dialed 911 as quickly as I could while watching out the window as Kwami held the struggling thief on the ground amid the small crowd of early moviegoers. I tossed the phone aside, sprang out from behind the counter, and ran across the street to be there when the police arrived.
Kwami simply sat on the thief and I caught my breathe as we waited. It didn’t take long.
A police car, lights flashing, turned onto Court Street and bumped up onto the curb, coming to a stop with two wheels on the sidewalk. As two cops jumped out, I moved to intercept them.
“I called you,” I yelled. “The man that my employee is sitting on stole from my store, and he took this guy’s tips.” Not knowing what the cops might do, I pointed to Kwami.
Much to my relief, the officers actually laughed. One of them motioned for Kwami to get up. The other handcuffed the thief. “Let’s go over to your store and talk.” Kwami and I led the way, the thief prodded along by the police behind him.
Once we were inside, I told the officers that they should find a statue in the thief’s jacket and, probably, a handful of loose bills and change. They found all of that along with a couple of other items from the store. While one policeman was placing all of this on the counter, the thief was loudly complaining to the other that Kwami had been beating him, that he was the real victim here.
The officer listened for a moment while holding the man against the wall next to the door. He turned to Kwami and asked, “Did this guy take your tips?” Kwami pointed to the money now on the counter and said, “Yup.” The thief was still complaining about how Kwami had abused him. The cop turned back to him and interrupted him.
“That’s too bad,” he said.
He picked the little man up and slammed him against the wall. The thief slid back down onto wobbly feet, his knees buckling. I watched, silent, unsure if I should applaud or be horrified. The policeman turned to me and Kwami.
“So, what do you want us to do with him?”
“What are our options?”
Ultimately, we decided that the police would take the thief down to the station on Union Street nearby and check him out. If no outstanding warrants were found, they would let him go. After all, we had our stuff back and the stun from the cop smacking him against the wall seemed punishment enough—especially since the cop should never have done it.
That was more than twenty years ago but memory of the panic I felt when I saw Kwami tackle the thief returns to me every time I hear of police making split-second decisions relating to young African-American men. I wouldn’t have been so concerned had Kwami been white and the thief black, or if both had been white. As the situation was, though, I was extremely concerned. Kwami was my employee; in a sense, I was responsible for him while he was at work. If anything had happened to him, I would have been at least partially to blame. That is part of why, of course, I had sprinted after him.
Across Brooklyn, on April 4, 2018, in a precinct where I used to live, a mentally disturbed black man brandishing a pipe was killed by police who had heard he had a gun. No one tried to stop the cops, though many around knew that the man was harmless. Saheed Vassell died needlessly.
I may have been overreacting that day on Court Street. Better that, though, than even the remote possibility of another shooting. One of the mourners at Vassell’s funeral made the point that the blame wasn’t only the cops’. It also belongs to the community that did not try to diffuse the situation as soon as the police arrived.
Of course, not in every situation could the community have made any difference. More people, in fact, could have been hurt had anyone made the attempt. But it also remains true that we need to try.