Dozens of children and community members on Wednesday rallied to support a Black classmate who was stopped by Safeway staff last week and accused of stealing.
Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy families organized the protest at Safeway on behalf of Ja’Mari Oliver, a fifth-grader who attends the close-knit public school. One child shouted “Safeway is not safe,” a sentiment repeated in chants and on posters.
Last week, 11-year-old Ja’Mari bought a sandwich at the Safeway on Market and Church streets to eat at his school, located nearby. On his way out, three grocery store workers stopped him and questioned whether he had paid for the food.
Though Ja’Mari showed his receipt, he said was still stopped from exiting until the store manager told him he could go. The emotional damage was immediate.
“It made me feel sad,” Ja’Mari said on Wednesday. “I felt scared, like something could happen. I was just crying.”
School staff noticed a “change in his demeanor” that day and asked him what happened, said third-grade teacher Ryan Swick. When staff went to the store the next morning, he said they were met with hostility themselves.
“He was very shaken up, not his usual self at school,” Swick said. “Kids are aware that this kind of stuff happens. You don’t think it happens to someone in your community until it happens to someone in your community.”
A Safeway representative confirmed that third-party security guards asked for a receipt and eventually Ja’Mari left the store with his mother. Those involved have been “removed” from the store, said spokesperson Wendy Gutshall.
“The store manager was unaware of what happened until the young man returned to the store with his mother,” Gutshall said in an email. “He extended our most sincere apologies for the boy’s unsettling experience. While our internal investigation is ongoing, we can tell you that this is counter to our policies and training.”
The incident became a learning lesson for the school and was incorporated into inquiry-based lessons as they made posters this week for the rally. Teachers asked students questions such as if they’ve ever been accused of something they didn’t do, how that made them feel, and why they thought it would happen if Ja’Mari had a receipt.
One Black student of Swick’s pointed out the racism behind Ja’Mari’s experience. In making signs, some students wrote “All colors matter,” which prompted conversation around how it was time to focus on standing against what happened to their fellow classmate, who is Black.
“We don’t just want to focus on the things that can happen to [Black and brown students],” Swick said. “But also, how are we restoring Ja’Mari’s joy? How are we showering him with community to let him know we are with him? When you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.”
Ja’Mari said the rally “makes me feel good” and that he hoped for “better things” going forward.
The school community is still crafting demands and will be meeting with Safeway representatives. At the rally on Wednesday, Rev. Amos Brown spoke and threatened a boycott.
“We’re going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with them or else we will say ‘We will not shop at Safeway,’” said Brown, who is president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s San Francisco chapter. “We’ve got to teach Safeway a lesson.”