Marsell Ector just wanted to buy a pair of Timberland boots at Dillard's in Mesa.
But according to Ector and several witnesses, a security guard at Dillard's Fiesta Mall location gave him a boot of a different kind--right out of the store.
Ector, 24, says he was hounded, harassed and finally ordered to leave the store along with his 23-year-old brother Marquis. The two, who are black, say they were shopping just like everybody else and believe their ejection by a Dillard's security officer was racially motivated.
"There was plenty of other people in there," says Marsell, who works for a pager company. "He just picked me and my brother out.
"I said, 'Excuse me--what's the problem?' I had money in my hand, and I showed him and told him there was no reason to be following me. He said to be quiet or I was gonna have on more 'jewelry' than I already had on"--an apparent reference to handcuffs.
The Ectors' complaint is one of a litany of racial-discrimination claims lodged against the Little Rock, Arkansas-based department-store chain. Some complaints have gone to federal courts; others to NAACP branches around the country.
The incident took place between 5:30 and 6 p.m. on February 24 at Dillard's Fiesta Mall location. The Ectors and a cousin, Jackie Patterson, had played basketball nearby, and instead of going back home to change, they decided to shop for shoes to match clothes they planned to wear while club-hopping that evening.
Marquis Ector and Patterson had brought a casual change of clothes with them; however, Marsell Ector had not. "My brother had on exactly what he wore to play basketball," Marquis says.
That was athletic shorts, gym shoes and a tee shirt along with a bracelet, ring and watch that he put back on after playing basketball. He carried money and his ID card in his hand.
"We looked kind of rough," says Marquis. "We weren't trying to impress anybody."
The three visited a few stores and then noticed that Dillard's was having a shoe sale. En route to the shoe department, Marquis says Patterson noticed a security officer closely following them. He says it was obvious the officer was tailing them, but Marsell, ahead of the group, didn't notice until he reached one of three tables displaying shoes and boots and other discounted items.
"Next thing I looked up and there was this cop, right behind me," Marsell says. "I asked was there a problem, and he said yes, he was making sure the situation was all right. I said, 'What situation?' He said, 'Don't worry about it, partner.'"
Marsell moved to another table. The Ectors say the officer--they described him as white, in his late 30s with glasses and grayish hair--then leaned on a nearby pillar, folded his arms and stared at Marsell while he looked for shoes. Meanwhile, the three bantered and amused nearby customers.
"They were funny," says Jose Rey, a southeast Valley resident who was in the store with his wife. "They were telling stories, and we were laughing. They said they were going to the clubs and they were looking for shoes to buy.
"They were laughing because my wife said to them, 'Don't do what my husband is doing, because he's buying the wrong size.' They said, 'Well, don't do what we're doing, because we attract cops.' I thought they were fooling around, but then I saw they were for real."
The officer was standing about eight to ten feet away from Marsell.
"He was looking at them all mean, like they was going to steal something," says Tracy Johnson, 21, an employee of Microchip Technology in Chandler who was in the store shopping with a friend. She and her friend are also African American. "Then he came up to them like they was throwing shoes at old ladies."
Marquis took a pair of shoes from the table to try on while Marsell took a single boot to the register to ask whether that style was available in his size. When the clerk couldn't locate any, Marsell asked him to tell the officer to leave him alone.
"I said, 'Look, I'm not trying to steal nothing, I don't even got nowhere to put it. I'm not going to steal a boot unless I put it on my head.' We laughed, but [the officer] didn't like it."
Marquis says that's when the officer made the comment about the potential for Marsell to be wearing more jewelry than he already had on.
"My brother said, 'That don't make no sense. What does that mean--is it a problem that I have on jewelry now?' The officer said my brother had to leave, that he was going to count to three," Marquis says.
Marquis urged his brother to leave and avoid further trouble. As Marsell left, the officer followed him, so Marquis says he stepped in between the two and accompanied his brother back into the mall. He then went back into Dillard's to find their cousin.
The officer confronted him, he says.
"He said, 'Are you with him?' I said, 'Look around. Who do you think I'm with?'
"He said, 'Why don't all y'all get out?' I said, 'You know what? Your attitude stinks. There's plenty of other people here, but you just pick us out and harass us, and that's wrong.'
"He said, 'You get out, or I'll show you how I put people out.' I asked him his name and he said, 'You keep talking to me and I'll give you my name on some paperwork.'"
"It was clearly a black-white issue," Marsell Ector says.
Jim Benson, the manager of Dillard's Fiesta Mall location, referred questions to Bob Baker of Dillard's divisional headquarters at Metrocenter.
Although the Ectors have not lodged a formal complaint against Dillard's, Baker says two employees of the Fiesta Mall store wrote reports indicating that the security guard's actions were "fully justified." Baker would not name those employees or allow them or the security guard to be interviewed by New Times. He also refused to release their reports on the incident or to characterize what the Ectors had done to justify the security guard's actions.
Baker says the company has no policy of singling out anyone by race.
This isn't the first time Dillard's has faced a complaint of racial discrimination in the Valley.
In 1993, New Times detailed incidents at Dillard's locations at Park Central and Paradise Valley malls involving young African Americans. One, a 17-year-old, was paraded around in handcuffs while being falsely accused of passing a counterfeit $100 bill. In a separate incident, three South Mountain High School students were followed around the store for 30 to 40 minutes while they did nothing more than shop.
Oscar Tillman, president of the Arizona chapter of NAACP, says the group has not taken any legal action against Dillard's.
"The only thing we've had is complaints, specifically about the Paradise Valley store," he says. "People tell us that from the moment they walk in until they leave the store, they are tailed. It's to the point that they will not go there again."
When the NAACP receives complaints, Tillman says, the group often conducts its own tests, but "we have not had a chance to do that" with Dillard's. However, he adds, "We have not put this one to rest."
The chain has not fared well in the eyes of national NAACP officials. Linda Haithcox of the NAACP's economic development office in Baltimore, Maryland, says Dillard's signed an agreement with the organization in 1986, pledging to improve relations with minorities within and outside the company. The "fair-share" agreement was similar to one signed by Denny's restaurants and other companies with which the NAACP has found fault.
But Haithcox says Dillard's was dropped from the 15-year-old fair-share program list in late 1994, "primarily because of their lack of commitment to the agreement." The NAACP keeps terms of such agreements confidential, but the terms reportedly included pledges that the company would hire and promote more minorities, increase business with minority-owned companies and include more minorities in its advertising.
Still, the NAACP continues to receive complaints about the company. Haithcox runs through a dossier that included complaints from San Antonio, Texas, from Memphis, Tennessee, from St. Louis, Missouri, from Jacksonville, Florida. "They have quite a folder," she says. "We did reach out to them on a number of occasions, but they were not receptive."
According to Fred Rasheed, a former NAACP officer who negotiated most of the fair-share agreements, Dillard's is the only company in the history of the program that the NAACP has divorced itself from.
"I do not like to speak badly of any company," Haithcox says. "However, this company has been consistently poor. I've had personal experience in Georgia, and I swore I'd never go back there again."
Jim Darr of Dillard's national headquarters in Little Rock denies the company ever signed a fair-share agreement with the NAACP. "We agreed to meet and share information," he says. "But it really just died on the vine. We haven't met with them for some time, and I guess they just deleted us."
Asked about the NAACP's view that Dillard's needs to better promote minority relations and hiring, he said: "Well, that's our policy anyway, is to be an equal employment company."
He also says he wasn't familiar with the incident in Mesa, but that the singling out of a particular group for surveillance "is, of course, against our policy. But we have an obligation to protect our merchandise, and we are always mindful of conduct by anybody that appears to be illegal."
But Marquis and Marsell Ector say they weren't doing anything that could have been construed as bordering on illegality. They were just shopping for shoes.
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After the incident, they purchased three pairs of shoes at another store in the mall.
"After that happened, we left, too," says Tracy Johnson, who had also planned to buy shoes at Dillard's. "We could tell we were going to be next."
"I'm from back East, New York," says Jose Rey, who also left after witnessing the altercation and bought shoes at Robinson's instead. "I was surprised, that here we're going into the 21st century and they're still doing that kind of stuff.