Police in Washington Township, NJ, arrested a 16-year-old teen for broadcasting a racist comment over the public address system of a Wal-Mart in southern New Jersey last weekend.
They’ve released neither his name nor race, nor revealed whether he had a criminal record. (Though it’s likely he’ll be outted on the internet in no time.)
“Attention, Wal-Mart customers: All black people, leave the store now,” the voice announced.
A manager commandeered the phone (this particular store had 24 of them on the floor) and made an apology, but outraged customers complained to store management.
Wal-Mart officials condemned the incident, saying the behavior was “unacceptable,” and they say they’ll now work to limit shoppers’ access to in-store PA systems (starting with access to PA codes readily available on the internet).
The boy was charged with harassment and bias intimidation and released into the custody of his parents after his Friday arrest.
When the story broke last weekend, the first thought was “prank.” Yet, there were media outlets that quickly assumed the worst. For example, the website, Gothamist.com, ran the headline, “More racism at Walmart, this time over PA system.”
A little premature, no?
The site is now reporting (as is everyone else) that the kid may face a year in juvenile hall but they’re not offering any mea culpa for having jumped the gun.
The arrest of this kid came days after Toyota challenged the runaway Prius story of one motorist and a government statement that at least one report of a runway Toyota Prius was solely driver error.
It’s a reminder of how, like spam e-mails, consumer pranksters can unfairly kick a company even when it’s down, creating a public relations disaster and costing a corporation dearly even when it’s done nothing at all wrong.
Wal-Mart has had its run-ins with problems over race. Last year, the company paid a $17.5 million settlement last year brought by black truck drivers who claimed the company discriminated against them. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also sued Wal-Mart in 2009 over racial insults coming from fellow employees.
Since then, Wal-Mart’s approval numbers among consumers has been rising, especially as it makes a push into urban areas.
Was the prank racist and offensive? Sure. But is it a crime? It’s possible, in a continuing effort to reverse these past impressions about racism that Wal-Mart might want to press charges. Should it? Should the police be arresting and charging this teen and putting him through the system, including a possible year in juvenile hall –all at taxpayer expense? Or is this just a dumb prank (surveillance video shows the teen appeared to be goaded by a companion) that needs a good talking to?
The question then becomes, who should talk to this kid? Kids tend to get most of their values from their parents. If that’s the case here, will there be any effective lesson if the parents just brush it off or tell the kid they thought it was funny and don’t worry about it?
We’ve all witnessed countless incidents where you wonder about the capability of some parents, and comment that people need to get a license to have children. If parents aren’t capable of disciplining their children, if that’s the case in this Wal-Mart story, what’s the best way to teach this kid a lesson?
And what if the kid is black? Will the NAACP have a comment then?
Does this situation warrant criminal charges?
Yes. It was threatening to people in the store.
No. It was an offensive prank, but not a crime.
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