A pair of religious leaders and community organizers stood in front of a gas station Thursday evening (March 31) to protest what they say was an excessive police reaction to a failed petty-theft attempt that occurred inside the store a week ago.
"When we heard about the case and began to review the tape, I started to think about Rodney King," said reverend Shane Harris, leader of a local chapter of Al Sharpton's National Action Network, concerning a brief manhunt that ensued after an unidentified suspect's thwarted attempt to steal a bag of Cheetos — priced at $1.49 — from an ampm store on the 1800 block of Euclid Avenue. He was later found hiding in an alley about a block away.
"Over eight police cars, along with police choppers and K9 dog units went out to look for this man. What we are here for today is not to investigate the case, but to look at the significance of the situation," Harris continued. "Nobody should have [this kind of response] because of a bag of Cheetos. The question has to be asked — how are our tax dollars being spent?"
The shoplifting charge, however, did not stand alone — the accused thief also may face assault charges. From 10News, which originally reported the story that was picked up nationally by a handful of ABC affiliates and others:
The store's employees said the suspect tried to steal a bag of Cheetos and when confronted, punched one of the workers and wrestled with another before running away. The suspect left behind the bag of chips, his shoes, and jacket…. The store's clerks said they had seen the man in the store before, but he had never caused any problems.
Harris says that a letter has been sent to Arco, which operates the ampm convenience store, inquiring about the incident. Further questions regarding police use-of-force incidents and in which parts of town they're most likely to occur have been directed toward San Diego police and chief Shelley Zimmerman.
"We want answers as to why the store clerk…interviewed on TV and had the nerve to tell media that he knew this man, that he came in the store every day. But you call the police and act like you don't know who he was," Harris said. "What would happen if we were in La Jolla? What if we were north of [Interstate] 8? Those are questions we have, and we want to know where the money is being spent — where is it coming from?
"Eighteen year-olds have been watching Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown on social media — so when a police officer approaches them in this town they feel scared because of the traumatic things they've seen."
Bishop Cornelius Bowser, representing a group named Community Assistance Support Team, stressed that the motive was not to condemn all police work. He noted that his group conducts "community-engagement training" sessions with new police recruits to provide insight on the mindset of racially diverse community members in order to foster better communication.
"One of the problems we have is excessive force being used by police officers, especially younger ones who are new and may not have learned how to interact with folks in our communities," said Bowser, opining that video showing police unleashing a canine to repeatedly bite the suspect in question despite his apparent willingness to surrender harkened back to tactics used in the 1960s against Jim Crow law protesters in the South.
"We want to make sure folks in our community are being treated fairly," Bowser continued. "These are communities that are marginalized, that lack opportunity, that deal with poverty. These factors have to be weighed in when you consider the mind of a man that would steal a bag of Cheetos.
"We don't just focus on the negative — we're doing a lot of positive things in the community."
While Harris acknowledges his group has not yet directly contacted the suspect in the case, he said it was hoped that contact would be made by today (April 1), and that the his organization’s local and national resources would be made available to assist in pursuing an excessive-force complaint against police.