Newark Man Boycotts Whole Foods After He's Accused Of Shoplifting
A Newark resident says he was falsely accused of shoplifting. Now he's leading a boycott against Whole Foods AND Prudential – here's why.
By Eric Kiefer, Patch Staff Oct 16, 2020 9:35 am ET| Updated Oct 16, 2020 12:19 pm ET
Newark resident Michael "President" Anderson protests at a Whole Foods supermarket in Newark, New Jersey on Oct. 3.(Photo/video courtesy of Brick City Strength and #BlackDadsMatter)
NEWARK, NJ — Michael Anderson laid in a doorway at Newark Whole Foods, propping the sliding glass doors open with his body and blocking the entrance. Wrapped in a U.S. flag and wearing a face mask, sweatpants and sneakers, he clutched a posterboard sign reading "I Am A Man" to his chest like a shield.
Bail money had been gathered in advance. The camera was rolling. It was time.
"They accused me of stealing and threatened to beat me–" Anderson began to yell, trying to attract attention from nearby shoppers and passerby. But as soon as the words left his mouth, an armed security guard clad in black walked to his side. The guard grabbed at the corner of Anderson's sign and tried to lift it away.
His reaction was swift: "Do not touch my sign!"
"Move!" the guard retorted, pointing his finger and making another reach for the sign.
"Do not touch me!" Anderson repeated loudly. "Do not touch my sign! I'm engaging in public civil disobedience!"
As customers began gathering to see what the commotion was about, the guard continued to grab at the sign, ripping small pieces away each time until Anderson finally displayed a flash of anger, yelling "Get the f*** off of me!" Stymied, the guard moved away. And for eight more minutes, the stage would be all Anderson's.
Here's the narrative that followed.
ACCUSED OF SHOPLIFTING
According to Anderson, he walked into Whole Foods on the evening of Oct. 3, clad in sweat pants and a hoodie and carrying an item he bought at another store for $5.99. As he left the supermarket, an armed security officer "deliberately collided" with him, pushing him backwards.
As two other Whole Foods employees approached him, including a manager, Anderson tried to leave the store. After several minutes of trying to learn why he was being stopped, he was finally told that he was in possession of a "stolen item."
It's a hard hit to a person's reputation when they're accused of shoplifting in their own neighborhood. But when they're a Harvard University graduate, a former investment banker, an author, a social justice activist and the co-founder of a financial technology platform, it has an extra powerful sting.
Anderson produced a receipt to back up his explanation – a safeguard that had become a part of his daily routine – and handed it to the staff members. Meanwhile, the security officer kept his hand near his gun, he said.
It wasn't just embarrassing, Anderson said. It was a "violation of his humanity."
Eventually, Anderson was allowed to leave. But the damage had already been done, he told Patch.
"I couldn't believe it," Anderson recalled. "I really don't like people physically touching me … I was upset, enraged and furious."
A spokesperson for Whole Foods said the security guard involved in the incident works for a third-party company that it contracts with at the Newark location.
Whole Foods confirmed that Anderson only interacted with two Whole Foods Market team members during the situation, and both approached him after he had been stopped by third-party security.
"Our store leadership approached Mr. Anderson to help resolve the situation," a spokesperson told Patch. "Their intentions were never to embarrass or draw attention to the customer."
"Mr. Anderson's experience at our store was unacceptable," the spokesperson added. "The actions of the third-party security officer who initiated this interaction were in violation of Whole Foods Market protocol and we are investigating with their employer. We extend our sincere apologies to Mr. Anderson."
'I AM A MAN'
Anderson said that he tried to reach out to Whole Foods after the incident, but didn't get a reply. So two days later on Oct. 5, he returned to the supermarket.
This time, he went prepared.
After refusing to move for an armed security guard, Anderson laid in the doorway for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time a police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd before his death in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Invoking the name of Floyd wasn't done lightly in a city that saw a massive, 12,000-person protest in the wake of his death. But as Anderson pointed out during his "Die-In" protest at Whole Foods, Floyd was killed after leaving a local grocery store and being accused of using a counterfeit bill, a situation not all that different from his own.
"That's how they tried to do me Saturday night, saying that I was stealing something that's mine!" Anderson hollered.
"What if I didn't have the emotional intelligence to respond how I did?" Anderson asked, refusing to budge from between the doors. "I come here every day. I am a man, and you will treat me like a man!"
His efforts met with a mixed reaction from a sparse crowd. Several customers simply chose to step over him and enter the store, never glancing down at him. But others took note – and didn't like it one bit.
"I won't be shopping here," a passerby can be heard saying off-camera in Anderson's video of the event, which gained more than 53,000 views on Instagram in a week.
Anderson said he didn't face any charges or jail time after the protest.
Watch video footage below. EDITOR'S NOTE: Contains strong language.
Patch asked Anderson to comment on Whole Foods' apology. He wasn't impressed.
Here was his reply:
"I do not find this apology sincere or wholly accurate. An entire team of Whole Foods staff – including senior leadership – participated in the indecent act of harassment and assault. The security guard that the company blames merely responded to the directives of leadership and instructions from another Whole Foods employee. In fact, the person who self-identified as the GM was verbally abusive and continued to berate me after I was physically assaulted. If Whole Foods Market protocol is to racially profile and then blame outsourced staff, the investors behind this project need to be held accountable for how their 'social impact' capital is deteriorating the quality of life for Newark's Indigenous population of color. Obviously, the store itself is unwilling to be responsible for subjecting good people to second-class treatment."
Anderson added that he doesn't plan to relent with his protests until "Whole Foods and its investors contribute fairly to the community they profit from."
"Every week we will protest until our demands are met," he pledged.
INVESTING IN NEWARK
Anderson has since launched a boycott against not only Whole Foods, but Prudential Financial, the Newark-based, Fortune 500 investment company that owns part of the building where the supermarket is located.
Prudential and the other owners of the building don't manage the day-to-day operations of Whole Foods, including issues related to its security or personnel. But Anderson says that the boycott is much bigger than a simple shoplifting accusation.
It's about economic justice.
"Whole Foods and Prudential must be held accountable for how their investments may employ Black Americans in marginal positions, but contribute to an economic regime in which white corporations reap massive rewards, while indigenous Black communities experience a wealth transfer that excludes their participation at the highest levels," Anderson argued.
"Our humanity is not being represented congruently with white corporate profits," he added. "Blacks have no stake in 'the New Newark.'"
Anderson isn't alone in his concerns about a lack of money flowing into New Jersey's Black communities.
In June, a Black-owned investment firm in Newark claimed racial bias in a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey, alleging that officials said the state's pension was averse to hiring money-management firms owned by minorities.
"Systemic discrimination and racism continue to permeate America's financial services industry," Blueprint Capital Advisors stated in the civil complaint. "Although such racial resentment, suspicion, and destruction are most horribly illustrated by the burning of 'Black Wall Street' almost 100 years ago, many of the white Americans who dominate the worlds of banking and investment today still, consciously and unconsciously, act to prevent Black Americans from achieving success on the same basis, terms, and level as their white colleagues."
See related article: Black-Owned Newark Investment Firm Sues NJ, Alleges Racial Bias
Anderson claimed that Prudential's executive board is entirely white, an accusation that doesn't match the company's annual report (Prudential says that 80 percent of its nonemployee directors are "diverse.") Anderson also alleged that Prudential "manages a trillion dollars in assets," yet invests "zero percent" of it in Black businesses, developers and asset managers.
When Patch reached out to Prudential to comment about Anderson's boycott campaign, a spokesperson pointed to a "billion-dollar commitment" that the company has made to the Brick City.
Over the past decade, Prudential says its investments in Newark have included more than $500 million in infrastructure projects, $438 million in "impact investments" and $197 million in grants to nonprofits.
The list includes:
Building Prudential Tower with more than $52 million of Newark vendor goods
Contributing $2 million to help transform Military Park
Putting $6 million into Georgia King Village, an affordable housing complex
Donating more than $29 million to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center
Channeling $5.25 million into AeroFarms, an indoor farm in Newark
Other local investments from Prudential include:
ASSET BUILDING – "In January 2018, Prudential came together with local nonprofits, government officials and other corporations to create the Newark Asset Building Coalition to offer tax preparation help, financial coaching, assistance for first-time homebuyers and other wealth-building programs for all Newarkers."
THINKING LOCAL – "Prudential has been proud to serve as a catalyst for the city's Live, Hire, Buy Local Initiative. As a part of this initiative, we helped launch Newark2020 in 2017 to put 2,020 Newark jobseekers into full-time employment by 2020 – a goal that was met ahead of schedule, connecting 2,279 Newark residents to local jobs as of June 2020."
INTERNET AID – "To help bridge the digital divide in Newark, Prudential worked with municipal leaders and Newark-based corporations to install fiber internet service at no charge to low-income residents in Newark."
Prudential has also been involved with local COVID-19 relief in Newark, the company says on its website.
"We waived April and May rent for our tenants in Newark, New Jersey—most of whom are small business owners—to help reduce layoffs from local businesses."
"We're deploying more than $1 million in crisis-relief funding, including $500,000 to support small businesses in Newark and the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund."
"We're working with longstanding nonprofit partners in Newark and across New Jersey to support their relief efforts for individuals and families."
"In 1875, Prudential founder John Dryden chose Newark as the home for an idea that would change America forever: life insurance for everyday families," the company states. "The city has been our home for more than 140 years. That's why we've committed more than $1 billion to Newark, spreading economic and social opportunity across the city, creating meaningful and lasting change."
Michael Anderson and supporters rally in Newark, NJ as part of a boycott against Whole Foods and Prudential Financial. (Photo courtesy of Brick City Strength and #BlackDadsMatter) NEWARK'S RACIAL WEALTH GAP
In Essex County, the stark paradox of wealth and poverty is hard to ignore.
The county has the most homeless residents in the entire state, the overwhelming bulk of whom live in Newark. But just a 20-minute drive away in the Millburn/Short Hills area, two of the "400 richest people in America" reside in a neighborhood filled with huge mansions.
See related article: Coronavirus Is Exposing Racial Gaps In NJ, Advocates Say
In Newark, Black households account for nearly half of the 282,000 estimated residents of the city.
According to a study released in October 2019 – which Prudential helped to pay for – Black and Latinos households in Newark lag across multiple measures of financial security. Both make less than the city median income of $34,826, earning $31,872 and $33,975 respectively, while Asians do slightly better at $37,229 and whites make $49,146.
Additionally, both Blacks and Latinos are on average two times as likely to live in poverty compared to white households, and three times as likely to be liquid asset poor.
"This means they lack the savings necessary to live above the poverty level for just three months if they lose a job, face a medical crisis or suffer an income disruption or emergency," the study says.
Things have been changing over the past decade in New Jersey's largest city, however.
In 2018, Mayor Ras Baraka said Newark's dogged pursuit to land Amazon's new headquarters is a sign that corporate America is finally taking note of the city's vast potential. Although Newark eventually lost the race for Amazon's new HQ, it showed that the Brick City is now a big player on the U.S. stage, he said.
"Four years ago, if you watched television, listened to the radio, read the newspaper or social media, you would have seen a bleak and negative narrative that was forced upon us and shaped the way people around the country viewed our great city," Baraka said.
"It was so pervasive that some of us believed it too, and it ripened into cynicism and recklessness," the mayor added. "Not all of it was true of course, but it began to take hold. However, just four years later there's been so much progress going on that the media can no longer ignore it."
See related article: Don't Believe The Cynicism, Newark Is On The Rise
See related article: Newark's $10M Mulberry Commons Will Empower City, Mayor Says
Part of that progress has been the revival of several ailing properties such as the Hahne & Company Building, where the Newark Whole Foods is located.
The 400,000 square-foot building at 609 Broad Street stood vacant after shutting its doors nearly three decades ago. But the abandoned property – which once stood as a glittering downtown department store – regained much of its former glory after a $174 million facelift was finished in 2017. In addition to 160 new apartments, 64 of which are set aside for low-income families, the Hahne building is now home to a range of restaurants and retail stores.
The renovation was financed through a partnership of public, nonprofit and private groups, including sizable commitments from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency and New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Private equity was provided by Prudential Financial, L+M Development Partners and Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group.
The project's supporters, including then-mayor Cory Booker, trumpeted the signing of Newark's first Whole Foods as a major win for the city.
"We know that Whole Foods Market brings with them a deep commitment to community engagement and advancement, and we welcome them as a long-term stakeholder in our city's continued success," Booker said.
See related article: Hahne and Company Building In Newark Revived To Fanfare
See related article: Newark's 1st Whole Foods Opens For Business
Other Newark city officials have echoed that same call, insisting that true social change can only come with an ongoing investment from corporate America.
In June, the city announced it would be launching a small-scale "guaranteed income" pilot program, which would test out the concept of giving residents universal income in Newark. Participants would get between $250 and $500 per month, or a lump sum of $9,000 to cover an 18-month period.
However, the future of the pilot will depend on finding enough cash from the "local, state and national foundation and donor community" to keep it going, officials said.
See related article: 'Guaranteed Income' For Every Newark Resident? Here's The Plan
In the past year, Newark officials have been actively recruiting investors to put money into other social justice programs in the city. Last month, a star-studded cast of supporters announced the launch of the Newark 40 Acres and a Mule Fund, a program that aims to put millions of dollars of capital directly into the hands of the city's Black and Latinx business owners. Anderson was the first resident to demand $100M be invested in Black businesses, holding a 2019 Forbes Demonstration at MPAC Park.
The program has already seen support from celebrities such as Shaquille O'Neal and the Rev. Al Sharpton. So far, it's been promised $2 million towards an ambitious, $100 million goal.
Corporate contributors include AT&T, Panasonic, the Nelson Mullins Law Firm, New Jersey Community Capital, PSE&G and Popular Bank. Anderson was actually one of few community members to speak at City Hall during the announcement of the fund.
See related article: Newark Makes Bold, $100M Pledge To Black, Latinx Business Owners
But despite the waves of change rippling through the city, there are still many residents – including Anderson – who are suspicious when it comes to corporate investment in Newark. And they're not standing down now, he said.
"Every week, a Prudential asset in Newark will be the site of a 'Blackout,'" Anderson wrote last week in an op-ed on Patch Newark's neighbor post section. "#BlackoutNewark will not stop."