Posted by: turtlebella | 6 August 2007

Race, class, and a couple of grapes

I heard about this story awhile ago at a blogging community I frequent, Hip Mama (despite the fact that I’m not a mama I find the site to have a unique collection of women, many of whom are interested in the same things I am). And the story continues to bother me. It’s such a stark example of the racism and classism that are so prevalent- and intertwined- in our society. And this happened at my local grocery store, so it struck close to home.

Here is the story as far as I know it- (based on a Pioneer Press story as well as my own insights and conjecture):

– A woman, Tameca Sharrell Griffin, sampled grapes in the produce section of a Rainbow Foods.

– Ms. Griffen was a nursing student with no prior record. I think she is Black, although the newspaper story does not indicate this. The reasons for my surmise are her name and my personal knowledge of the neighborhood and the clientele of the particular grocery store.

– Bystanders said that Ms. Griffen was “grazing” on the grapes.

– Rainbow Foods, it’s not your upmarket kind of place. It’s frequented by a mix of folks from the St. Paul neighborhoods immediately around it (Dayton’s Bluff and Payne-Phalen)- working class, middle class, white, Black, Latino, Asian American, Hmong, Ethiopian and Somali immigrants.

– An off-duty uniformed St Paul police officer, also a woman, Laura Syring, was working security at the grocery store. She warned Ms. Griffen to stop stealing grapes. Again, the story does not relate what race Ms. Syring is. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that she’s not Black (or Latino or Somali or… okay yeah, I’m going to say she’s white). I could be wrong on this count.

– Ms. Griffen got pissed off and got up in the police officer’s face.

– She probably shouldn’t have gotten as angry as she did.

– Ms. Griffen says Officer Syring grabbed Ms. Griffen’s hair. At which point a physical struggle insued.

– Ms. Syring used the following tools to wrestle Ms. Griffen to the ground:

a nightstick

pepper spray

a Taser

– In the struggle the pepper spray was knocked out of the officer’s hand and her head hit a counter.

– Ms. Griffen ended up on the floor with her pants around her ankles.

– That kind of force seems excessive to me.

– However, the newspaper appears to try to explain this by saying that Ms. Griffen is 220-250lbs and Ms. Syring 140lbs.

– Ms. Griffen got 45 days in jail for felony assault and obstructing legal process.

The reason I find this story so disturbing is that if a woman of a different class and different race had eaten a few grapes at a different grocery store (or maybe even the same grocery store?), things would have gone down quite differently. Likely no one would have been Tasered or pepper sprayed. No one would have ended up on the floor without their frickin’ pants. Class and classism are at work here- at a rich, suburban grocery store no one notices if someone eats a few grapes. At my admittedly posh natural foods co-op in the city they even acknowledged recently that people would sample the cherries and asked that we put the pits and stems in a conveniently located trash bin and “encouraged” us to purchase some cherries as well as sampling! No security officer was guarding the cherries or the grapes. It doesn’t sound like Ms. Griffen was stuffing her face with grapes, trying to get away with not paying for them or generally helping herself to meal-sized portions of produce.

I may not be calling the police officer a racist (although I probably would if pressed) but I think she is playing out the racism and classism that is so inherent in our world. Black woman – must be poor, thieving, and needs to be taught a lesson. And then there’s police officers and how many communities of color view them- hostile, racist, always use excessive force. In my own life I’ve been taught – both implicitly and explicitly – to view the police with a great deal of suspicion, trepidation, fear, and hate. Individual officers may be good people- I’ve even met some!- but on the whole they are not to be trusted, this is my own bias. I’ve no doubt that these and other perceptions colored the way that Ms. Griffen reacted to the police officer. She probably over-reacted to being told to stop eating grapes.

However, I fault the officer for using what seems like excessive amounts of force. I mean, pepper spray, her nightstick, AND a Taser?! That seems just wrong. Are police not trained to use the least amount of force necessary? I don’t know why I think that- it’s so patently obvious that this is not so, this example being the least of the pertinent cases! But it does seem that most of the cases are ones where people of color are involved. And that, my dear friends, is racism at work in America.


  1. As we’ve discussed, I think the adding of the taser to the arsenal of police officers has been a bad thing. The ostensible idea of the taser is that it is a substitute for deadly force, which would be a good thing. But does anyone think that in this situation, without having a taser, the officer would have shot this woman over GRAPES? So the taser actually ends up abetting the use of excessive force, instead of lessening it… ugh…

  2. That is a terrible story. I think you’re absolutely right. That would NEVER happen in Whole Foods.

  3. hmmm. i have to think that if a black person was arrested for an altercation with a cop, and it began with “stealing” or “grazing” grapes, then their race would definitely be mentioned. that’s what i’ve found, it might not be the case here or in every case. but normally when non race is mentioned in normal news outlets/papers, the default is white.

    anyway, yeah. the outbreak of tazer guns is fucking insane. its nuts. electroshock in the hands of cops? its so overused, they just are too afraid to handle people anymore.

  4. Hello, I would just like to comment that I was an employee at this store the night that this happened. it was not about race, it was about preventing shoplifting, that is what the police officer was hired to do. Yes, the officer was white, yes the felon was black. she did have way over 100 lbs on the cop and she was beating the crap out of her.

    Get your facts strait before you play the race card

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