There was a kid-led march on Wednesday to protest the treatment of a San Francisco fifth-grader who was accused of stealing a sandwich at the Safeway on Market and Church streets.
The angry-making situation arose last week, on April 26, when 11-year-old Ja'mari Oliver, who is Black, went into the Safeway by himself to buy lunch for his first day back at school after 14 months of remote learning. On his way out of the store, he was stopped by a security guard and asked to show proof that he'd paid for his sandwich.
"I went to the sandwich deli to pay for my sandwich," Oliver tells KTVU. "Then I came back. Then the security guard told me to put my sandwich on the counter because I didn't pay for it."
He was detained momentarily and showed the guard and a store manager his receipt. He was ultimately let go, but was already sobbing on his way out of the store, as his mother, Tatiana Hawkins-Piggee, tells the Chronicle.
"I’ve never seen him cry like that," Hawkins-Piggee says. And she adds the heartbreaking detail of Ja'mari's explanation for what happened: "I’m Black and that’s just how they feel."
The story has reverberated for several days through the community of Ja'mari's school, Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, where teachers and parents alike have been infuriated. A letter from the school's diversity team went out to parents on Saturday, describing how a teacher and coach at the school went to the Safeway and "hoped to have a conversation that would start to repair the harm that was caused." But, they say, they "were met with hostility, disregard, and disrespect by store employees, who tried to dismiss the situation."
Shameful. I stand with and support Ja’Mari Oliver and the families, students and educators at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy. I've reached out to them to offer any support he or the school needs. https://t.co/5f5NE44By4— Matt Haney (@MattHaneySF) May 5, 2021
This led to Wednesday's march, in which teachers and Ja'mari's fellow students held up Black Lives Matter signs and others and marched from the school in the Castro down to the Safeway.
"Racism is America’s original sin, but the racial profiling of a child is uniquely horrible and horrifying," says Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who participated in the march, writing on Twitter. "I’m so inspired by Ja’Mari Oliver and the amazing educators, students, and parents at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy who came together to fight back and demand change."
Students at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy marched to Safeway on Market Street after one of their own, 11 year old Ja’Mari Oliver, was racially profiled trying to buy a sandwich for lunch. Story at 5 & 7 on @KPIXtv pic.twitter.com/c5BXmMjRgM— Andria Borba (@AndriaKPIX) May 5, 2021
Racism is America’s original sin, but the racial profiling of a child is uniquely horrible and horrifying. I’m so inspired by Ja’Mari Oliver and the amazing educators, students, and parents at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy who came together to fight back and demand change. pic.twitter.com/AITeTfRxaS— Rafael Mandelman (@RafaelMandelman) May 5, 2021
Emmanuel Stewart, the principal of Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, tells the Chronicle that the march "is really standing up for Harvey Milk’s legacy." And Ja'Mari said that having his fellow students march to protest what happened made him feel good. Still, he says, he feels "scared" by the incident. And experts say that such encounters could spawn lifelong trauma.
Safeway said it had removed the third-party security guard who detained the boy. And in a statement, the company said, "Across all of our stores, we strive for an environment where everyone is treated with courtesy, dignity and respect. Clearly this instance fell short of our expectations. The young man at the center of this unfortunate interaction was asked for a receipt by third-party security guards. He produced his receipt and left the store. When he later returned with his mother and spoke with our store director, he extended our most sincere apologies for the boy’s unsettling experience."
In reality, Hawkins-Piggee told the Chronicle, the manager simply offered them a $25 gift card. "I’m not sure how that will help him," she said.