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.