When reading this post over at Dawn Chorus I could feel the anger boiling up inside. Not just for this poor bloody woman (who was pregnant, wrongly accused of shoplifting, made to take off clothes inside the store to prove she wasn't hiding alcohol), but because it raised my own feelings of shame and embarrassment. I've been going out of my way to hide a recent experience of mine, because I was convinced that it was something to be ashamed of.
I've been accused of shoplifting; quite recently in fact. I'd never bothered to 'know my rights' in this area, which is ironic given I was an editor of Rabelais (the magazine which published an article banned and subject to various court cases regarding its instructions on shoplifting). Since the incident, I've struggled with feeling as though I have actually done something wrong, despite the fact that I know I haven't. Like when you're going through customs and you get that nervy feeling like they're going to think your nail scissors are actually a weapon you fully intend to use. You know there's nothing in your bag to worry about, but sometimes you can't help but jump when they ask you to step out of the line and explain an item in your luggage. So here's the abridged story...
After having a coffee in a coffee/bookstore I went to leave, forgetting that I had put books on top of my other shopping in a green shopping bag, which I intended to purchase. When stopped outside the store I was embarrassed, but happily returned inside to to pay for the items. Then I was told that I would have to wait for the police. I stood there, aghast, and reiterated my earlier apologies and intention to pay for the items... nope, the police were called. I still waited, thinking the issue would be easily solved when they arrived. I'd made a mistake. It was simple. They would see that.
Police arrived, asked if they could search the remainder of my belongings. Again, knowing that I hadn't done anything wrong, I consented. Amid the rest of the crap inside my handbag there was a small pair of wire twisters, along with framing tacks, a card and receipt from picture framing I had done the week previous. All of a sudden, the police attitude changed from courteous to suspicious and aggressive. One minute they seemed to understand the incident was a mistake, the next they charged me for shoplifting and coming prepared to shoplift. Apparently the wire twisters are classified as some kind of tool for shoplifting. By this stage I couldn't believe the nightmare unfolding. I kept trying to explain the connection between the wire twisters and the other picture framing stuff - I'd been working on the frames, had to transport the glass and alter the frames at my parent's factory, chucked all the stuff in my bag - but nope, that was it. I kept repeating "but I haven't done anything with them, they're just in my bag! And this is the reason..."
The whole incident was so surreal. I was loaded into a divvy van, taken to the station, fingerprinted, interviewed, charged and released. Even now I can't believe it. I have a mug shot. Through the whole incident I kept thinking, if I just co-operate, they'll understand I'm just a normal person who made a mistake, who forgot to go back to the counter after her coffee. The officers kept asking "but how could you just forget" and practically scoffing at the idea that I could have a legitimate reason for having wire twisters in my bag. They completely derided the idea that they were in there along with the rest of the items which were used to assemble the frames and glass I had bought, even though there was no way that I had even attempted to use them to do anything!
I have enough trouble explaining the concept of 'brain fuzz' to sympathetic ears, but to someone who doesn't even believe in the concept of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, it's impossible to be taken seriously. I can try to explain that even making a cup of tea takes an unbelievable amount of effort to remember what steps to do everything in; get cup, fill kettle, boil kettle, put teabag and sugar in cup, put boiled water in cup, stir, add milk, stir again, remove teabag. Most days I have to stop and ask myself with conscious thought "what comes next?" My hope of getting these people to understand how I could just 'forget' that I had taken the items off the table when I was reading a magazine with my coffee in the store, put them on top of my other stuff so I had room to read and drink, then fifteen minutes later think "I'm finished", get up and leave, is near impossible.
In hindsight, of course, I keep thinking I should have just told the original girl who stopped me to just take back the books and walk away. But I wasn't even sure I was allowed to do that. I honestly thought that by staying, explaining to the police, co-operating, I was doing the right thing, that it would show I had never intended to take anything without paying. How bloody green am I?! The attitude of security and store workers (let alone the police) is so intimidating that even when you know you've not set out to do anything wrong, you still feel like you need to go along with whatever they want you to in order to show you're not shoplifting.
So now I have no idea what happens. Apparently I'll receive a summons to appear in court, but it's been months and I've heard nothing. Already though, it's had huge repercussions on my life. For example, my foster care application? Down the drain. A recent charge for shoplifting doesn't exactly put you in high standing. And you try explaining "it was a mistake!" It sounds so damn soft. But instead of letting myself get embarrassed into feeling like I've done something wrong, I want to write about it publicly.
I think part of the reason I didn't act within my rights and leave the store instead of waiting for the police is because I didn't truly think something like this could happen. That you could be charged over an honest mistake. I wasn't hiding anything; the items were in plain sight, I provided an explanation of how/what/why I had forgotten to go back to the counter before leaving, I co-operated fully by coming back into the store and agreeing to the staff checking my bags, by waiting for police (so they could check and confirm I had no prior record).
I know, in hindsight, that it was the point where they saw the wire twisters that things escalated. Before that, the police were pretty bored. After that point, they were convinced that I had something to hide. And if I had acted like I was guilty; refused to be searched, refused to stay, refused to provide my details and identification, left immediately... I'd have no problem right now! So, lesson learnt. No more co-operating with police or security in store. No more assuming that they are only interested in people actually doing something wrong. No more acting under the false assumption that an honest explanation will clear up a mistake you have made. No more assuming that a jewellery-appliance like a wire twister is just a wire twister. From now on, take all the precautions a guilty person takes and refuse to co-operate with anything asked of you in a store.
So yes, a pregnant woman being humiliated in public and asked to bare all in the middle of a store does make me angry. And it doesn't surprise me. After my own personal experience I strongly believe that it's regular people with nothing to hide who are the suckers most at risk. We're the ones prepared to stop when asked to. We're the ones who want so badly to show we have nothing to hide that we co-operate with the requests to search us, or have our belongings searched. We're the ones who don't bother to learn, or assert, that we do not have to consent to bag searching when we leave a store. We do not have to stay and wait for police if accused of shoplifting. We do not have to give our details to shop assistants or security guards if asked to. Having no criminal record, not having CDs tucked under our jumpers, being genuinely embarrassed when we do something wrong in error... none of it matters. Security guards, shop assistants, shop owners, police will all ask you to waive your rights and submit to humiliating processes where you are assumed to be guilty unless you can prove otherwise.