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via my best friend gayle by summer of sam on 11/5/09Zoe McFarland likes to think of herself as a friend of the environment. She doesn't own a car, only flushes when she goes number two, recycles rigorously, and has turned a vacant lot in her west side Chicago neighborhood into a community garden, where she teaches neighborhood kids the way of the land. She never thought her effort to leave a lighter carbon footprint would almost land her in jail.
Two weeks ago, McFarland rode her bike to a Chicagoland Trader Joe's to grab a few items before heading home. "Normally, I like to shop locally," she said. "But a lot of things emanated from my being during yoga class, and wasn't sure I had the energy to pedal the seven additional blocks to my local health food store, so I decided to visit the national chain. Besides, they have great hummus." Though she'd forgotten her reusable bag at her environmentally friendly studio apartment, McFarland opted not to use a shopping cart, and simply filled her backpack with items from her her grocery list. By the time she got to the frozen food section, however, she was approached and subsequently confronted by the store manager.
Apparently, an overzealous cashier had spotted McFarland placing items in her bag and concluded that she was shoplifting. That employee notified the store manager. "I reached down to grab some frozen kale, and the next thing I know the manager is requesting that I follow him to his office." It took several minutes for McFarland to believe she was being accused of shoplifting. "It wasn't until he told me that store policy was to prosecute shoplifters to the highest extent of the law that I took him seriously."
Fortunately for McFarland, her cousin, Chauncey Davis is a security guard at the store, and was returning from his break when he recognized his relative in the manager's office. "I know her afro anywhere," he said. Davis was able to convince the manager that he was mistaken. "I basically told him that she's one of those earthy chicks, and that stealing wasn't really her style. I had just been named employee of the month, so he was willing to believe me. Plus with the recession and everything, I'm pretty sure he knew I wasn't going to risk my job if I thought she was really stealing."
Several pastors of local churches have rallied around McFarland, calling this incident racist. "We have no doubt that this is yet another case of racial profiling. Had Ms. McFarland not been black, there is no way that store manager would've accosted her in such a manner," Rev. Billie Ray Wilds said during a press conference. "How can African Americans become environmentally friendly within such unsavory confines? How can we be green when they make such assumptions about being black? we trying to love the land, but the landowner don't love us!"
Still, McFarland is ambivalent about pursuing anything legally. "It's not that I don't see what the pastors are saying, and though I do think I have a case, I'm not sure I want to go through all of that. Lawsuits involve a lot of paper."
The Trader Joe's manager could not be reached for comment.