Have you ever spent time in a shopping mall without buying anything in your first 45 minutes?
But according to a group of five teenage boys, that’s all it took for them to be booted from the mammoth Potomac Mills mall in Northern Virginia this holiday season.
The boys told their parents that they weren’t making noise or causing a ruckus when security guards stopped them, asked why they didn’t have any shopping bags and then called for police backup — an account disputed by mall officials.
The teens were not suspected of shoplifting or disturbing other shoppers, according to Prince William County police, who checked their records for me. Nothing criminal was reported. The boys maintained that they were just walking across the mall. Without bags.
And I bet you might be able to guess what these boys look like.
Welcome to Shopping While Black, Christmas 2017 edition.
“This area we live in is a very diverse area. It’s a mix of people, so our boys were sheltered from this kind of profiling,” said April Lampkin, whose 16-year-old son was one of the boys ejected on Dec. 9, a Saturday. “We thought they wouldn’t have to experience this.”
She and the other parents did not want their sons’ names used — they’ve never been in trouble and they feel humiliated by what happened. But the parents wanted the story told.
They are all middle-class professionals who chose to live in Lake Ridge, not far from Woodbridge, because it is diverse, safe and nothing like the cities some of them left behind. So their boys have grown up in a place where they’d never experienced the kind of racial profiling and police violence that have roiled other parts of the nation.
It all feels different now, they said.
The Saturday started the same way others start with teens: They were hatching a plan. One of the dads, Lee Riley, was recruited by his son to drive. So they got into the car and scooped up two of the other teens, and the three friends — who have known one another since grade school — were dropped off at the mall.
One of the guys had birthday money to burn. Another had been given some cash from Grandma to do Christmas shopping. And they all had their eyes on some new sneakers. They’re sneakerheads. So this was going to be a good trip, Lampkin said.
Riley dropped them off in the morning and then headed out to do errands.
Once the three got to the mall, they met up with two other friends, they told their parents later. And the five of them hit their favorite stores — H&M, First Line and a few others. They browsed for about 40 minutes or so, debated what to buy, then decided to go see a movie and have lunch before making final decisions, Riley said.
On the way to the movies, they saw two security guards heading toward them, Lampkin said.
“One of the guards said, ‘Why don’t you have any shopping bags?’ ” Lampkin said.
The boys tried to tell them that they were still browsing. One guard told them that they would have to leave. They started asking for their names and ages. One teen called his mom. Riley’s son called him. “But I just left you, you haven’t been there that long,” Riley said he told his son, before heading back.
I called Potomac Mills officials to get their side of the story. Lindsay Doyle, a spokeswoman for the mall, said in a statement that the teens were asked to leave, but only after they were reported being disruptive around the mall’s Santa set and children’s play area.
“Potomac Mills’ youth action plan outlines specifics regarding group size, loitering and common courtesy,” she wrote. “Anyone who is not in agreement with these principles, may be asked to leave by mall security or management, a common practice put in place by many area businesses and private properties including other area shopping centers.”
She said that the boys received “multiple warnings” from security. “After failing to comply, the group was escorted off premises,” her statement said. “A copy of the youth action plan letter was provided to a parent who came to pick up the teens.”
By the time Riley arrived back at the mall, the security guards had been joined by two Prince William police officers. His wife, Sheryl White-Riley, was on the phone with their son because worst-case scenarios were running through their minds.
“The conversations we have with our young black men are very sad conversations,” Riley said. “At the end of the day, right or wrong, you have to keep quiet, don’t argue, do what the police say. Do. Not. Escalate. Our sons are well-mannered, well-behaved. They didn’t argue, didn’t escalate.”
He didn’t escalate either, despite the looks on the boys’ faces.
Riley asked for a manager. And a manager arrived. He explained to Riley that the mall has had problems lately with large groups of unsupervised teens making other shoppers uncomfortable. So, he said, they’d decided to break up groups of six or more.
“I pointed out that there were five boys, not six,” Riley said.
The manager handed Riley a letter — “Open Letter to Concerned Parents” — explaining the problems teens were causing after being dropped off at the mall.
“Many parents feel this is a favorable environment for their children. As a result, Potomac Mills Mall has become ‘the place’ for young people to congregate on weekend evenings,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, the situation has escalated to the point where Mall Management has taken serious actions in order to preserve a safe comfortable environment for all shoppers and employees.”
The Prince William County police have a substation there now, the letter explained.
Yes, they do, Sgt. Jonathan L. Perok, a police spokesman, told me.
“This [mall] is rather large, one of the largest on the East Coast, if not the entire country. We often assist mall staff and security with a variety of different issues as requested by them,” Perok said. But the police have not seen any spike in incidents recently. Nor did they find anything specific on the call log the day the boys were ejected.
Riley said he politely argued with the mall manager and the security guards, explaining that the boys all had money to spend and that they were not troublemakers. Several passersby and shop workers stopped to watch. One filmed the incident. They all argued that the boys were well-behaved and that their removal was unfounded, Riley said.
The management team responded by asking Riley to leave, taking his picture and handing him a map of the mall area circled in red.
“He told me I am banned from everything inside the red,” Riley said.
The families are planning to file official complaints with Simon Property Group, which operates the mall; the security company; and the Prince William County Human Rights Commission.
“We’re so afraid for our boys. I have 15-year-old who is 6-foot-4. He stands out,” said Taunya Jones, one of the parents. “I also have a 7-year-old, and he looks up to his brother. He’s so hurt and confused by what happened. And he asked me, ‘What will happen when I get older? Will this happen to me, too?’ ”
When Lampkin’s son came home, he threw his crumpled wad of birthday cash on the dining room table.
“I never even got to buy anything,” he told his parents. The money is still there, more than a week later.
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