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Business

Charlotte man sues Whole Foods, alleging he was racially profiled at SouthPark store

Three years ago, Joshua Brown says he went shopping at Whole Foods for some fresh fish, stopped for a piece of pizza, and ended up being racially profiled by one of Charlotte’s most upscale groceries.

The Charlotte resident’s account of his 2017 experiences at the Whole Foods store on Sharon Road is included in a new federal lawsuit that claims Brown was singled out by the store’s manager because of his race.

Charlotte attorney J.M. Durnovich, who is defending Whole Foods against Brown’s lawsuit, told the Observer that the chain had no comment.

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Yet Brown’s complaint, if true, embodies the background discrimination Black people say they face even in routine situations, like shopping for food.

His trip three years ago to Whole Foods began with a stop at the fresh-fish counter at the SouthPark store where he asked for mahi-mahi. It ended, according to the lawsuit, with a confrontation between Brown and two Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers.

The nature of the outing changed when Brown decided to stop by the store’s hot-food section for lunch. According to the complaint, he asked for a piece of pizza, then sat down in the dining area to eat it. Under the store’s policy, customers can pay for lunch at check-out along with their other purchases, the lawsuit says.

Except, according to the lawsuit, after Brown took a seat among Whole Foods’ other lunching clientele, he was visited by store manager Tim Burroughs.

Burroughs, in an apparent breach of store policy, asked Brown to pay for his pizza before he ate it, the lawsuit claims.

“Mr. Burroughs did not approach any of the white customers in the dining area (who) also were eating the food they ordered prior to the purchase,” the lawsuit says.

Brown, according to the lawsuit, declined Burroughs’ demand, saying he would pay for the pizza and his fish before leaving the store — just like everybody else.

Burroughs, according to the complaint, then called 911 — “falsely accusing Mr. Brown of acting suspicious and attempting to steal food from the store.”

As Brown remained seated in the dining area, two unidentified CMPD officers approached him. Brown, the lawsuit says, pulled out his cell phone and started filming.

He says one of the officers demanded “in a provoking manner” that Brown pay in advance for his lunch. Brown, according to his complaint, said he wasn’t stealing and that he would settle his bill immediately after he finished his pizza.

Police, the lawsuit says, gave one more warning for Brown: Leave without paying and you’ll be arrested for stealing. Brown said he understood, finished his meal, paid up and left the store.

Now, his complaint claims that “the irrational and discriminatory” treatment he received at Whole Foods has left emotional and psychological damage, while also violating his constitutional rights.

Brown’s attorney, Ryon Smalls, did not respond to Observer emails and phone calls this week seeking comment.

The complaint surfaces as the country debates patterns of systemic racism and racial profiling in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In New York’s Central Park this month, a white woman called police to claim a black birdwatcher had “threatened her life” after he asked her to leash her dog.

Two years ago, Starbucks shut down its entire chain for racial-sensitivity training after two black men were arrested and charged with trespassing when they asked to use the bathroom at a Starbucks in Philadelphia while waiting for a white friend.

As for Whole Foods, claims of discrimination have cropped up among its minority customers and employees in the Bay Area, Miami, Philadelphia and other cities, now including Charlotte.

A 2018 petition on Change.org calls for a boycott of the grocer over what the petition says is Whole Foods’ practice of having its security officers “surveil, secretly follow, and monitor people of color who patronize their stores.”

More recently, a class-action lawsuit claims that Whole Foods punished workers in multiple states for wearing Black Lives Matter masks.

In a statement involving a 2017 profiling allegation against a Whole Foods store in California, the chain said it has “zero tolerance” for discrimination within its stores.

Brown, however, has called for a jury trial and is asking for punitive damages in excess of $25,000.

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