When Veronica Harris pulled back the curtain of a dressing room at the bebe store in Georgetown one night this year and found a D.C. police officer asking if he could talk to her, she was startled.
"I thought he was being a little fresh," she said.
But she and friend Zelda Wallace, two of the few black patrons attending the store's grand opening party, quickly found out that wasn't the case.
In a race discrimination lawsuit filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, the two say they were hustled under suspicion of shoplifting to the back of the store, where they were photographed, issued a notice barring them from all of the popular chain's stores and forced to leave through an alley.
"They never listed specific items they said we were supposedly trying to steal; we offered to let them search our bags, and they refused," Harris said yesterday. "They just wanted us out of the store."
The plaintiffs and their attorneys say the April 18 incident crystallizes a long-standing problem that many black patrons have encountered in the exclusive shops and boutiques that line Wisconsin Avenue -- that of discrimination from store owners and employees.
"This is hardly the first case of concern about white merchants and black clients in Georgetown," said John Relman, the veteran civil rights litigator who is representing the two women. "There's no sign that says black clients aren't wanted; it's a set of presumptions that owners make. This barring notice, carried out with the police, is an attempt to fabricate a legal construct to legitimize the discrimination."
The manager of the store, at 1211 Wisconsin Ave., said yesterday that he was not working there last year and was unaware of the suit, which seeks an unspecified amount in damages. He declined to give his name and referred further inquiries to a corporate spokesman. Calls to that office yesterday evening were not returned.
David Berkebile, the owner of Georgetown Tobacco and vice president of the board of directors of the Georgetown Business and Professional Association, said that Georgetown stores frequently have problems with merchandise theft by employees, "most of whom are white," and by shoplifters, "most of whom are black."
"But I certainly hope that shop owners are only being careful, not discriminatory," he said.
bebe stores inc. is a popular, California-based international chain of fashionable women's apparel. The company has two stores in Washington and several others in Maryland and Virginia.
Harris, 40, a receptionist at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, and Wallace, 42, a television producer for Cox Broadcasting, said they were shopping at several stores in Georgetown on the day of the incident.
They said a store representative initially told them they'd need an invitation to come into the store's opening night party, but relented when a supervisor then invited them in.
As they were shopping, a clerk directed them to a single dressing room. While the women were trying on clothes, someone attempted to open the curtain, startling both women, and they quickly pulled it shut.
When they next opened it, they were facing two uniformed police officers who told them they had to come to the back of the store, according to the suit. There, they were told the store wanted them barred from returning -- on the suspicion of shoplifting.
According to the suit, a white store employee, identified only as Anthony, said the women had improperly shared a dressing room "in violation of company policy."
Although that manager implied they were shoplifting, "at no time . . . did the officers, Anthony or any bebe employee state that any person or bebe employee had seen Ms. Wallace or Ms. Harris attempt to steal store merchandise," the suit says.