But scrolling through social media recently, I felt a pang of sadness at just how hollow those statements ring for Black people in America.
I had entered an Eckerd drug store in Gainesville early on a Sunday morning to drop off film to develop pictures from my camera. My roommate was still sleeping, so I quietly slipped into a hoodie, jean shorts and sneakers, and left the dorm room, carrying my JanSport book bag with my rolls of film inside.
Batteries inside my book bag had caused the theft detector to beep as I exited Eckerd’s that Sunday morning. The clerk called me back to ask if I’d purchased anything. I rifled through my book bag and found a four-pack of AA batteries I had purchased days earlier. I frantically attempted to resolve the misunderstanding. He asked if I had a receipt for them. I knew I did somewhere among my folder, papers and other receipts. I continued to rifle. I was even more frantic. My heart pounded as I scanned the contents of my bag. I knew the receipt was there.
Minutes later, I was in a brightly lit office in the back of the store. The manager, an older White woman, slid an immaculate sheet of white paper, with tiny black text printed on it across her brown desk. I would need to sign it, she said. The small font blurred together, as I held it in shaking hands. I asked her to explain. I didn’t understand.
What was it? An admission of guilt and a trespass warning. If I couldn’t produce the receipt for the batteries immediately, I would need to sign it right then and there, she said. But I wasn’t guilty, and I didn’t steal the batteries. So that would be a lie. I couldn’t do that. No.
As a journalism major with hopes of attending law school, my next line of defense to her became logic and reasoning: I attended the university. I was a student on scholarship. I came into this store all the time to shop. I had the receipt, if they could just give me a moment to look. I just needed to think for a minute. I know I kept it. I keep all receipts. I had been taught at a young age to never leave a store without ensuring I had a receipt for the items I had purchased — one of the many lessons Black children grow up having to learn. Just in case you were approached by a security guard, you always wanted to have proof of purchase. Could they look at the security footage? I had walked straight to the photo department without stopping to even browse. I wasn’t a thief.
None of those arguments swayed her. She dialed 911 and two police officers arrived within minutes.
Sitting in the back seat of a police car, the strangest thoughts went through my head: Handcuffs are heavier than they look on TV. If someone isn’t deemed a threat, their hands are cuffed in the front. There are no door handles on the inside of the back seat of a police car and the windows are tinted so you can see out, but no one can see your shame as you sit inside.
I stared down at my cuffed wrists, hands in my lap, as the officers stood outside filling out the arrest report and chatting casually. They laughed at some inside joke. I was numb. This seemed like a dream.
And I would carry that shame and disbelief for a while: The shame that people would think I was a thief. The shame that I had been arrested. The reality that I was seen as guilty before proven innocent.
My mother picked me up from jail, making the five-hour drive from South Florida after posting my bond there. I was booked and placed in a holding cell for four hours and then I was allowed to wait in the lobby until she came to get me. When I got into her car in the jail parking lot, I rifled through the book bag again. Where was that receipt? I had to find it! I found it there neatly folded inside a bright red folder. I cried hysterically. It was there. It was there all along.
My lawyer produced a copy of the receipt for the state attorney’s office and the criminal charges had been dropped immediately.
As these memories flood my mind, I can’t help but ask: How is it that the employees in that pharmacy couldn’t give me the benefit of the doubt over a $2.49 package of batteries, but Rittenhouse, who has been charged with killing two people, can be extended this courtesy?
To be clear, I understand that this campaign to raise money for Rittenhouse was orchestrated specifically by people on the political right, and yes, the incidents happened in different times and places. I also know that people are free to donate to whatever cause they want.