As a black man raised in public housing in San Francisco’s Fillmore District at the height of the crack epidemic, discrimination is one of many obstacles hip hop artist Richard Bougere has had to overcome on his climb to success.
“I was from an area that had a lot of drama, a lot of beef with others — I got the jacket of being a bully just because I was big in size,” said Bougere, who is better known by his rap name “Big Rich.” “There was racial profiling, and constant run-ins with the police. Every time we walked somewhere, we would get pulled over.”
On Sunday afternoon, that past trauma was reexperienced when Bougere’s wife and manager, Danielle Banks, was confronted by police officers and falsely accused of shoplifting at Forever 21’s downtown San Francisco store — in front of a group of youth that the couple mentors.
After making a name for himself as a rapper, Bougere turned his attention to the young people in his community who, like him, struggled with pursuing their ambitions in the face of adversity.
In 2012, Bougere and Banks founded Project Level, an educational nonprofit that empowers underserved, inner-city youth through music, art, entrepreneurial and leadership skills programming. The couple currently employs 75 interns through Mayor London Breed’s Opportunities For All Initiative, a paid internship program aiming to level the playing field for economically disadvantaged youth.
The youth program leaders said that they had taken their interns to Forever 21 to shop for a fashion shoot planned as part of Project Level’s curriculum, and were “embarrassed” and outraged by the theft accusation from a store manager.
They have demanded a public apology under threat of legal action.
Wrapping up a day of shopping in The City’s downtown, the group walked into Forever 21 on Stockton Street carrying shopping bags with merchandise purchased at other stores at about 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Banks said that she and the interns examined some of their previous purchases while in Forever 21’s dressing room area, in order to “see what matches and what we needed.”
After four of the Project Level participants entered the fitting rooms to try on clothing they planned to buy, Banks said that she was approached by two San Francisco police officers who “aggressively” demanded that she show them the contents of a white bag she was carrying.
“My heart dropped,” said Banks, who said that she was with her 11-year-old daughter at the time of the encounter. “You have two cops coming up to two black people and there are a whole bunch of people standing around us already assuming we are guilty.”
“They were not discreet, they already assumed we were guilty. I thought, ‘you are just confirming what people already think about black people.’ I was embarrassed as hell,” she added.
After clearing Banks of wrongdoing, the officers told her that the store manager had accused her of shoplifting.
Bougere and Banks demanded an apology on the spot, but were reportedly told by the officers that the store manager did not “feel comfortable” apologizing to them — a response that they deemed as unacceptable.
Bougere filmed himself, Banks, and their interns leaving the store in frustration.
He said the couple later tried to call the store manager to discuss what happened, but were turned away.
In an email to the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday, Forever 21 said that it is “committed to diversity and inclusion” at all of its stores.
“After conducting an investigation into the situation, we confirmed that the police were notified due to specific shopping behaviors, consisting of bringing in non-Forever 21 products and mixing and matching with in-store merchandise, which created confusion,” the company said in its statement. “We sincerely apologize for the misunderstanding and are working with the Mayor’s Office and the parties involved to learn from this experience, and make it right, as we take this matter extremely seriously.”
A spokesperson on Thursday confirmed the mayor’s office is working to connect the parties in the incident and facilitate a dialogue.
Bougere said on Thursday that while Forever 21 has reached out to him to set up a meeting next week, he is still expecting an apology “written in a public statement that all parties are in agreement with.”
The incident follows a series of viral videos in recent months showing white people calling police on black people, for seemingly no good reason.
Most recently, on the Fourth of July, a white man was filmed calling the police on a black man waiting outside of an apartment building for his disabled friend, despite his son begging him not to make the call. The cell phone video garnered more than a million views, and the caller has since apologized.
Bougere said that he is fed up with complacency in regard to racial profiling — and because his mentees witnessed the incident, he said he won’t back down from his call for an apology and is even prepared to take legal action.
“It’s ownership — it’s showing the kids that if you make a mistake you can own up to it and you won’t be persecuted for it and even if you are we all make mistakes as humans. But them letting it brush off their shoulders is not owning up to their responsibility,” said Bougere. “Why should the kids own up to their responsibilities if this corporation will not?”
He added that the management’s actions undermined his work at Project Level.
“Incidents like this take our youth back to the starting point. When they came in they weren’t confident, they weren’t sure of themselves,” said Bougere. “This knocks them back to the disadvantaged place we feel society placed them in from the jump, from birth.”
Project Level intern Mikayla Sherman said that she was angered by the incident — and that it wasn’t the first time the 20-year-old Western Addition native was the target of racial profiling.
“I was just so angry — we are African Americans and we had shopping bags. Why do I have to prove to these people that I’m not a thief. I want to be looked at like everyone else,” said Sherman.
Sherman added that she wishes the store manager or an employee had approached the group first to clear up any misunderstandings before involving the police.
“She didn’t even give us a chance,” said Sherman. “She went directly to the police and that wasn’t the right way to handle it.”
Banks said that she hopes Forever 21 will take the opportunity to reflect on its culture and implement cultural sensitivity training. She added that many current and former employees as well as customers have reached out to the couple on social media with complaints about the company and about similar incidents.
“We want companies to put together a protocol on how they are addressing these situations. You can’t just attack and arrest,” she said. “I’m an adult that has opportunity and a platform. Not everybody has that. It’s not fair that there are people who this is constantly happening to and who have nobody standing up for them.”