A Nordstrom Rack in Brentwood, Mo., where cops were called on three black teens store staff wrongfully claimed were shoplifting. The three had been shopping for prom outfits.
Screenshot: KMOV-TV

With prom coming up, high school seniors Eric Rogers II and Dirone Taylor needed something to wear. So the pair hit up a Nordstrom Rack in Brentwood, Mo., along with their friend, college freshman Mekhi Lee, to lock down an outfit and accessories for the big night. But while they searched for clothes, they noticed several of the store’s employees watching them and following them around.

“Every time we move, they move. When we looked up, they looked up,” Lee told KMOV-TV.

They were aware they were being profiled, so they left—until one of the young men realized that he had left his hat in the store. When they returned for the hat, an elderly white woman shopping at Nordstrom Rack confronted the teens, the Washington Post reports. The three young men said she called them punks and asked the teens, “Are your parents proud for what you do?”

The young men asked to speak to a store manager, according to the Post, only to be told by Nordstrom Rack employees that they couldn’t meet with one. Again they left the store—until they turned around and saw a manager waving the three of them back.

“They decided, ‘We have money, we came here to shop and demonstrate to them that we aren’t thugs. We have money like anybody else,’” said St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt on behalf of the teens.

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So the teens went back into the store. As Pruitt told the Post, Nordstrom Rack appeared to escalate the situation from there: The elderly white woman who had confronted them was behind the three young men in line but was rung up separately by a white manager and later escorted to her car after she made her purchase. Meanwhile, the three friends overheard Nordstrom Rack staff say that they were calling the police.

After making their purchase, the young men were met by Brentwood police in the parking lot. Nordstrom Rack had accused the teens of shoplifting “handfuls of products,” Brentwood’s chief of police told the Post, but a quick investigation proved that the claims were unwarranted.

Without any proof of a crime having been committed, the cops let the boys go.

The thing is, Taylor said, he knew the confrontation with the cops was coming.

“At the same time, I was feeling embarrassed, agitated—mixed emotions with the whole situation because I knew we didn’t deserve it,” he told KMOV-TV.

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“We made the purchase to show them that we’re equal and we didn’t have to steal anything,” said Rogers.

The news is making national headlines as stories about how black people are treated in commercial spaces receive more attention. Among the most notable recent examples was the arrest of two young black men inside a Philadelphia Starbucks while they were waiting for a friend.

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“Being a young black male, you experience certain things,” Taylor said. “You experience being watched.” But Taylor said he had never seen someone take it to the “next level” as much as Nordstrom Rack did.

“What is that next level?” asked a KMOV reporter.

“Calling the police,” he replied.

As the local TV station reports, the president of Nordstrom Rack was scheduled to fly into St. Louis on Tuesday to deliver a personal apology to the teens. In a statement to the local news outlet, the company said that it was trying to address the altercation between the young men and the elderly customer when staffers called police:

We did not handle this situation well and we apologized to these young men and their families. We want all customers to feel welcome when they shop with us and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.

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But an apology isn’t enough. The St. Louis NAACP says it wants to have a more substantive discussion with Nordstrom Rack’s president about what actions he’ll enforce within the company to prevent future situations.

“The discussion has to have some sustenance, it needs to be strategic, and it needs to have some measurable outcomes,” said Pruitt.