Monday, November 16, 2009

Nobody Wins In This One

It started almost three years ago at a Wal-Mart in Kennett, a small town in southeast Missouri. A black college student, moved into a faster moving check-out lane, joining her cousin, and moving ahead of a white customer.

The young woman is now a school teacher and has insisted on vindication in a court room.

The clerk called a manager who called Kennett Police and both ordered the belligerent young woman to leave the store, although she wanted to pay for her merchandise. Police followed her or escorted her to the parking lot, depending on which version you believe. It was there, officers allege, she resisted arrest and kicked and hit two officers, leading to the charges that are scheduled to go to trial this week.

This is one of those situations where the victim/perpetrator loses no matter what.

So does the town of Kennett and Wal-Mart loses, too. Unless, cooler heads prevail, and everyone is wise enough to say "I'm sorry" and each admits they've made mistakes and have learned from the experience.

Wal-Mart apparently believes it is simply the "location" of a problem between a hot-headed youngster and the "authorities."

In the only statement I've seen from Wal-Mart, a spokesperson said, "Incidents involving our customers are unfortunate and we take them seriously." Corporate spokesman Lorenzo Lopez added, "In this matter, there was a disturbance and law enforcement was contacted, in accordance with our normal procedures. The police then determined how to proceed."

Someone at Wal-Mart is probably looking at the mostly white residents and customers of Kennett, MO, population 11,000, and thinking a conviction of this woman, won't hurt their image nor their business in that market, nor in the majority of mostly small-town Wal-Marts across America. And, they may be right.

But, the Police Chief and the Prosecutor, the young woman and Wal-Mart have allowed this "story" to live for nearly three years. The community is getting an image as a back-water, racist community. The police department thinks its righteous, but many outsiders don't.

The young woman may have experienced discrimination at that store, that day, or somewhere else before that day. And in one sense she may deserve an apology.

However, we all get upset when someone "jumps the line," no matter what color, age or gender they are. There is evidence she lost her cool and physically lashed out at two officers. They may deserve an apology.

And a better trained and more sensitive Wal-Mart manager probably could have defused the tension at the check-out lane and saved the company, the community and an angry young customer from nearly three years of fussing and bad feelings and negative publicity.

The bottom line for a company like Wal-Mart and for a police department, large or small, is to take the "conflict" out of a situation and story, not feed the conflict, as has been done in this case.

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