On Getting Stopped For ‘Shoplifting’ In Barnes And Noble

Some fifteen or so years ago, shortly after beginning my professorial employment at Brooklyn College, I stopped in at a Barnes and Noble store at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan; then, and perhaps even now, for I’m no longer sure it still exists, this ‘branch’ was the largest B&N store in New York City, one with an extensive selection of college textbooks in a rear annex. That annex was my destination; I wanted to see if some texts I had placed on my syllabi for the current semester were available here by chance, and if so, I could direct some of my students here for their book procurements. My search was unsuccessful; later, I wandered through the main shelves, browsing the philosophy, history, and literature sections before heading for the exits, my tried and trusted backpack slung over my shoulder.

As I reached the doors, my path was blocked by a security guard who asked to inspect my backpack. I handed it over; it contained the usual mix of a spare sweatshirt, my phone, some keys, and a few books. I expected the search to be perfunctory; I had not purchased anything and had no cash receipts to show. It wasn’t.

The guard picked out one of my books–on ‘The Great Game‘–and asked me where I got it from. I replied, ‘That’s mine; I’ve borrowed it from a friend.’ The guard asked me if I had a receipt. I replied (now, a bit tersely), no, I did not; my friend had not supplied me with the receipt when I borrowed it from him. Before I could add anything to make clear to the guard the absurdity of this line of questioning, he had walked off with my backpack. I stared after him: precisely what the fuck was going on? Clearly, I was under suspicion of shoplifting that newish looking book.

The guard returned with his manager, who repeated the question of where I got the book from. My temper rising, I said it was mine, and had been in my backpack when I entered the store. He then asked me why I had so many books in my backpack. I replied, “Because I’m a college professor!” My voice had risen by this time. The guard, watching this exchange, was sniggering. My awareness of this was making my temper rise further, even as I suddenly became aware of the danger I was in.

Were I to lose my temper any more (my backpack was still being held by the guard, and I would have to snatch it off him to leave with it; I didn’t think he would just hand it over), the police might be called in to ‘calm down’ an excitable brown man in post-911 New York City; the situation that was developing would most likely see me handcuffed and marched off to the local precinct for ‘disturbing the peace.’ My eventual release would be of no relief.

My snappy reply seemed to have snapped the manager out of his stupor. He gestured to the guard to hand my backpack over. The guard, still smirking, handed it over. I took it and stormed out. I haven’t been back to Barnes and Noble–any store–ever since.

The Boston Bombings Are Bad News

By now, the bombings at the Boston Marathon are ‘old news’ for our  24-hour news and social media cycle. We’ve now run through the standard template of responses to such an attack: suspicion of the usual suspects,  rallying cries of support for the afflicted, stern, righteous denunciations from political leaders, racist rants of revenge and retribution, speculation about the identities of those responsible, unhinged conspiracy theories, and lastly, suggestions that those indulging in outpourings of grief for the injured and the killed should extend their empathy to a community that includes others beyond Americans. (This last points cuts home deeply. It is hard to react to news of the death of the eight-year Martin Richard–and the serious injuries to his mother and sister–in any way other than shock and horror, an emotion that quite directly evokes memories of fatal drone attacks on children in Afghanistan, acts of brutality that we have now become used to.)

The Boston bombings are the kind of terrorist attacks that have the most corrosive effect on a polity. They immediately provoke calls for heightened security, in a tone of resignation that accepts a police state as the natural consequence of these provocations. See for instance, this comment by Tom Brokaw yesterday (as cited by Glenn Greenwald in an excellent series of notes summing up the responses to the Boston bombings):

Everyone has to understand tonight that, beginning tomorrow morning early, there are going to be much tougher security considerations all across the country, and however exhausted we may be by that, we’re going to have to learn to live with them, and get along and go forward, and not let them bring us to our knees. You’ll remember last summer, how unhappy we were with the security at the Democratic and Republic conventions. Now I don’t think we can raise those complaints after what happened in Boston.

9/11 saw a bothersome, poorly-directed, and often unjust security strategy directed inward at the US; these attacks have the promise to extend those security responses to relatively undisturbed pockets of American life, conjuring up images of ever more invasive search, frisk, question and detainment procedures at railway stations, bus stops, sporting events, movie houses; in short, just about any public space in heavy use. Because of their insidiousness–deadly explosive devices hidden in a public space, designed to hurt any and all innocents–these kind of terror acts generate the most fear and paranoia; the normal, the secure, the mundane is violated, and all that is solid and impenetrable seems vulnerable and threatened. And because these deadly attacks were covert, relied on subterfuge and deception, and are still exceedingly uncommon here in the US, they inspire even more fear and loathing in response, and thus provide plenty of cover for those who would suggest civil liberties are an indulgent luxury, that law enforcement agencies need ever more power and license, that American communities need to be subjected to ever greater profiling.  Politicians and a motley gaggle of provocateurs will no doubt make the case for these actions in the days to come.

These attacks in more ways than one–and for many more people than those sadly killed and injured yesterday–are very bad news indeed.