No Busts But Bare Shelves

A client of mine years ago owned a bodega in the South Bronx. He wanted to lead a successful, law-abiding life as a local businessman, and used to obsess about the quality of his tomatoes. But he grew up on the streets and realized that it was hard to sell tomatoes, or anything else, if kids from the neighborhood stole them from his carefully tended bins.

He kept a handgun and a bat behind the counter. He wouldn’t hesitate to use them. He wasn’t going to be killed by a robber and he wasn’t going to let his precious tomatoes walk out the door unless they were purchased. It wasn’t a commentary about life in South Bronx, but a very firm grasp of reality. Kids would rob him blind if he let them. He was not going to let them.

One of the basic promises of progressive prosecutors is that they will no longer prosecute petty theft, usually (it varies by state) defined as theft of goods worth less than $500. The rationale is that many steal because they’re poor and hungry rather than malevolent and criminal, and saddling them with a conviction greatly exacerbates their problems and perpetuates the racism that put them in the position of turning to theft in the first place. They have a point, even if it’s limited.

Indeed, we often hear about someone doing outrageous time for some minor theft, giving rise to outrage. Only a couple days ago, people applauded parole being given to Fair Wayne Bryant, who was sentenced to life imprisonment “for stealing hedge clippers.” Except that wasn’t the real story, and the narrative has become an all-too-common obfuscation of the problem.

That act of simple burglary wouldn’t normally lead to a life sentence. But over the previous two decades, Fair Wayne Bryant had committed four other felonies, including armed robbery of a cab driver, stealing merchandise from a store, forging a check for $150, and stealing property from somebody’s home.

Because Louisiana had a so-called “habitual offender” law for people with multiple felony convictions, and because Bryant’s 1979 armed robbery was considered a “violent” crime, he was given a life sentence for taking the hedge clippers.

While a life sentence was still a needlessly harsh sentence, the hedge-clipper narrative was a lie. His sentence was based on his being a “habitual offender,” and the hedge clippers were the last straw, not the cause. The cause was his choice to commit crimes, and arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, it was his choice. Others have priors and don’t. He did. Regardless, it’s hard to run a society where people persist in committing crimes and the solution is making excuses for it.

At the start of the pandemic, a Walgreens in San Francisco found itself in trouble.

A series of videos taken by customers and provided to NBC Bay Area appear to show shoplifters cleaning out store shelves, undeterred by employees and customers yelling at them to stop. One video shows a customer pushing an apparent shoplifter out of the store.

“They come and then take all the merchandise, the food – especially the food” said a Walgreens employee who NBC Bay Area is not identifying. “And then they say, ‘We have the virus. We got tested positive. We have the virus.”

Stores had security guards, but they weren’t allowed to stop the shoplifters. And threat of COVID, no matter how false, made shoplifters untouchable.

Walgreens has announced that it’s closing another store in Frisco.

Walgreens spokesman Phil Caruso said the store will close on Nov. 11 and it’s the seventh Walgreens store to close in the city this year. According to the Chronicle, Caruso added, “the safety of our team members and customers is our top concern.”

“All of us knew it was coming. Whenever we go in there, they always have problems with shoplifters, ” longtime customer Sebastian Luke said to the Matier. He lives a block away and is a frequent customer who has been posting photos of the thefts for months.

There is a disconnect between the well-intended concerns for the criminalization of poverty and the ability of stores to prevent rampant theft. Add to that the pandemic, and then add in the looting and destruction, combined with those who excuse it as reparations, and the climate for business becomes untenable. We can have stores selling goods or we can have people stealing goods at will.

Owning a business is a great way for a person to enjoy a happy, successful, law-abiding life, but only if it’s a viable business. If people can steal from them with impunity, it’s not going to work. And these businesses provide jobs to others, and the pay received from those jobs puts food on their families’ tables.

It’s not that there aren’t a long list of accompanying problems caused by poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity and lack of any sensibility about engaging in theft. Most of us don’t steal because we choose to conduct our lives that way, not because we fear arrest and prosecution. We’re not thieves, although some would respond that we are able to make that choices because we enjoy the “privilege” of being law-abiding, the “privilege” of being able to get an education, get a decent job, have expectations for a successful future. What about those who can’t, who don’t?

The issue is, as issues tend to be, far more complex than the simplistic “don’t prosecute petty theft” activists would have it. It’s not that their concerns are wrong or false, but that their solution is doomed to fail as it ignores the reality that people steal stuff, for understandable reasons and for their own greed or lack of concern for others. There are people for whom we should have empathy, and there are bad dudes who just want free stuff. But either way, if stores have no products to sell, or if no one pays for the products they take, they can’t survive.

When the stores are gone, where will people go to buy a good tomato? Or was my client’s defense against shoplifting, one that works for a guy who owns a bodega but not for a Walgreens, the only means left to protect a store from having its shelves emptied? Is the message that the only way to run a store is to wield a gun and a club? Allowing theft without recourse isn’t a viable solution for anyone, even if millions of woke activists on twitter love it to death.

26 thoughts on “No Busts But Bare Shelves

  1. jfjoyner3

    Just to be clear (maybe I’m in a pre-coffee fog):
    You wrote: “This isn’t a viable solution for anyone, even if millions of woke activists on twitter love it to death.”

    Are you saying woke activists favor wielding a gun and a stick as the solution? Did I misunderstand woke activism?

  2. Richard Kopf


    You have this uncanny ability to see the belly of the beast. I suppose that is because you have viewed it up close and personal. The vast majority of regular folks are too lazy to think about such things or they are just plain retarded.

    In countless courtrooms throughout this country the poor are prosecuted for being poor and yet many such defendants view poverty as an excuse for stealing Lays’ chips. One must eat don’t you know? (I prefer Ripples.)

    Left out of this equation is the poor guy from whom the the item was lifted and who makes a dime, perhaps, for every bag of Lays his corner convenience store sells. Over time that dime helps to send his kid to college.

    Our extraordinarily screwed up criminal justice system at least keeps us from tipping off the edge into total, but albeit not complete, anarchy. Lays’ chips are not free no matter how hungry you are.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      There is nothing like experience with people on both sides of the scales to make on realize how hard it is to find viable solutions to intransigent problems. It’s so much easier to ignore whoever is out of favor at the moment. Lay’s barbecue potato chips are the best, by the way.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Do you steal the whine from your soul when you post the cheese?

        Viable solutions you say? The math-s and you to need kiss and make up anyway.

        Perhaps you can start here on your intransigent journey:

        Bronx County (Bronx Borough), New York

        Population per square mile, 2010 32,903

        Median household income (in 2018 dollars), 2014-2018 $38,085

        Percapita income in past 12 months (in 2018 dollars), 2014-2018 $20,850

        Persons in poverty per as a percentage of population 27.3%

        High school graduate or higher, percent of persons age 25 years+, 2014-2018 72.0%

        Bachelor’s degree or higher, percent of persons age 25 years+, 2014-2018 19.8%

          1. John Barleycorn

            Must be all that “transnational” justice that goes down at 265 East 161st Street.

            Whatever happened to the Concourse Neighborhood anyway?

            What a shame that no one did the fractional community math-s on that re-development.

  3. Erik H

    2020: Stopping shoplifting is bad.
    2021: Not only are poor neighborhoods “food deserts”, they are now fully “product deserts”, and nobody has anywhere to buy diapers.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          Time to institute the dole and open all stadiums for free for any event just so that we can be more Roman and give proper bread and circuses to the masses. The stores are doomed either way if people can just brazenly walk out with whatever they want, and people will be needing new jobs. I want my bread and bloodsport and diapers as are my emperor-given rights.

          1. John Barleycorn

            It is true that you can no longer get a egg cream on 188th anymore, and yes Yankee Stadium was replaced by city park called “Heritage” but they are hiring School Safety Ambassadors starting at $17.00/hr.

            Relax, and get out of the house more before the esteemed one melts your brain with all the goblins he can fit into a plastic pumpkin a few weeks before Halloween.

  4. Quinn Martindale

    The Bronx DA prosecuted petty theft, and your client still had a bat. The San Francisco DA never pledged to stop prosecuting petty theft, and people still robbed Walgreens blind because Walgreens let them. And the two progressive DAs who have made pledges to not prosecute petty theft in some circumstances, Rachael Rollins in Boston and John Cruezot in Dallas, still have stores open on their cities.

    As you wrote last year, “Will they pull it off, put their reforms into practice and make it work, without bringing down a wave of crime or unintended consequences on the good people of their cities who elected them to office with the best of intentions? Time will tell, but so far it appears that more than a few basic assumptions upon which prosecutors and lawmakers, and their fans, have relied forever are being tested and failing. Maybe imprisoning people. more people and for ever-greater lengths of time, isn’t the only answer to protecting the public.”

    1. SHG Post author

      People are complicated. Life is complex. You, however, are not. Boston and Dallas are having problems, as is the Bronx. Not to reiterate the obvious, but why do you think black people do not want to abolish the police? They want to survive.

  5. Rengit

    I feel bad for the employees at those Walgreens. They are direct employees of the corporation, but they aren’t allowed to do anything but say “stop that” and watch the shoplifters walk out with the merchandise. Security doesn’t care, because in most circumstances they’re subcontractors, not direct Walgreens employees; they don’t mind not being allowed to “do their job”, so when the store goes under, Walgreens will end the contract and their employer will move them to some other company.

    The Walgreens employees, though, won’t have that option, so they’ll receive notice that the store is on hard times, and they’re being let go. There’s a lot of talk about “it’s just big corporations, they have money”, but for the employees, they’re watching people walk out with their livelihood.


      In my experience, it’s just as much the corporations are risk adverse. The employees want to stop the shoplifting, but are prevented by corporate policy. They don’t want to get sued if an alleged shoplifter gets hurt while getting detained.

      I worked for a preferred contractor at a competitor to Walgreens and saw it first hand. Most states I worked in were like that, Texas being the exception.

  6. B. McLeod

    There will come the day we will all either have to go back to growing our own tomatoes, or order them online, because the retailers who tried to sell them have been put down by uncontrolled theft. Then the marginalized will have to get their tomatoes by some kind of online payment fraud, or by stealing the money to actually pay for them, or stealing the actual tomatoes from neighbors who are growing them.

  7. Dan T.

    Music to shoplift by (in the video you posted): “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich, a 1973 hit.

  8. Jake

    What’s causing Walgreens and many other retail outlets to go down in flames predates the pandemic by over a decade. Spoiler alert: It ain’t shoplifting.

    That said, I’m sure the right-wing pundits appreciate you providing them with a narrative that shifts the blame from incompetent executive decision making to poor people.

      1. SHG Post author

        I don’t think Jake understands that his comments are empty. He doesn’t mean to come off like moron, but just doesn’t get it.

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