Kayla Phillips, 21, speaks next to her mother Wendy Elie, 43, during a news conference in the borough of Queens in New York October 25, 2013.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

String of ‘shop and frisk’ incidents are ‘reprehensible’: Civil rights groups

Updated

Civil rights groups are taking action after a trio of ‘shop and frisk’ incidents in New York, in which shoppers say they were targeted because of their race.

The New York Police Department, Barneys New York and Macy’s are all coming under fire, with lawsuits already filed or pending by the shoppers who say they were detained by authorities after trying to make perfectly legal purchases.

“It’s stunning and reprehensible that black people should have to fear arrest in order to go out shopping,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

MSNBC host Al Sharpton says black New Yorkers should put Barneys shopping “on hold.” In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, he wrote, “Barneys and other retailers that openly discriminate against us must be held accountable…We need to see a plan of action as to how they are going to rectify their ways.”

“Shopping while black” is a sad reality that many Americans can relate to. After the death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, and the acquittal of his shooter, President Obama said, “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”

The remarks also echo a story that talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey recounted, claiming in August that a sales clerk in Zurich refused to show her a $38,000 bag, saying the item was “too expensive” for her.

The most recent cases all occurred in New York City. Nineteen-year-old Trayon Christian, a student at the New York City College of Technology, said he was stopped by police after buying a $349 Ferragamo belt at Barneys. His lawyer, Michael Palillo, said he was detained for more than two hours. “The only reason there would be such an alarm or a concern is he’s a young black man,” said Palillo, adding that his client was told that “you can’t afford a belt like this.” Christian has filed a lawsuit against the store and the NYPD.

Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old nursing student in Brooklyn, also came forward, alleging she was stopped by two undercover police officers after buying a $2,500 orange suede Celine bag at Barneys. She has filed a notice of claim to sue both the city and Barney’s. Her lawyer, Kareem Vessup, said when Phillips was asked by police where she was from, and she told them “Brooklyn,” they asked her “What are you doing here?” Vessup said she was using her tax refund to treat herself to a bag she really liked. 

Phillipsdecided to step forward after Christian did. “She felt a shiver in her body, the similarities that he went through. She felt like she had an obligation to stand up and say, ‘You know what? It’s not just him’…She didn’t want to see Mr. Christian’s claim illegitimized or marginalized or dismissed because it was perceived to be an isolated incident. Because it’s not.”

Actor Robert Brown, of HBO’s “Treme,” has also filed a suit against the NYPD, saying he was stopped and detained by at least three plainclothes officers while buying his mother a $1,350 watch at Macy’s. Brown said he was “paraded” through the Herald Square store.

“Careful [black] ppl. If you drop $1000 at @Macys #NYPD might lock you up for grand larceny BEFORE they ask you for ID,” he tweeted. Eventually, he said police realized they made a mistake and let him go.

Mark Lee, the CEO of Barneys New York, offered his “sincere regret and deepest apologies” in a statement on Facebook.

“We are conducting a thorough review of our practices and procedures as they relate to these matters to ensure that they reflect our continued commitment to fairness and equality,” said Lee, adding that the store has hired civil rights expert Michael Yaki, who also serves on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to help out.

Macy’s says it is investigating Brown’s claims. The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.

Macy’s has been in hot water before over racial discrimination lawsuits. The store in 2005 agreed to pay New York State $600,000 to settle a complaint that its store followed shoppers based on their race and unlawfully handcuffed customers.

Lieberman predicted that more shoppers with racial discrimination complaints are likely to come forward. “What we’re seeing is because one person has come forward, others have felt compelled to share what happened to them. I think we’re going to find more and more people who have had similar experiences…The stores and NYPD have followed policies that treat all black people as suspects and that results in horrific situations.”

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String of 'shop and frisk' incidents are 'reprehensible': Civil rights groups

Updated