Carrying the fear of gangs to new heights in Colorado, the Greeley Mall kicked out a 44-year-old Denver woman earlier this month for wearing a blue bandanna on her head.
At the time of her ouster, during a busy Sunday shopping excursion, Theresa Seamster, a supply technician at Denver's VA hospital, was walking peacefully through the crowded mall with an elderly friend, Christina Buggs, who has Alzheimer's disease.
Seamster and Buggs were on their way to a leather-goods store while two friends waited for them at a toy store. Together, the four black women would end up spending more than $750 the afternoon of December 3.
Just before Seamster and her elderly friend entered the leather store, a female security guard stopped them and said to Seamster, "Ma'am, you have to take your bandanna off."
"Why?" Seamster says she asked.
"It's mall policy that you don't wear your bandanna."
"Can you show me the policy?"
"Well, who can show me the policy?"
"You can get it from the mall manager."
The "policy" was aimed at evicting youthful gang members, many of whom are known for wearing "colors" such as red or blue bandannas. But no written rules existed, nor were signs posted at the mall warning shoppers, as Seamster discovered to her frustration.
"If you can't show me a written policy," she says she told the guard, "I'm not going to take it off."
"Well, if you refuse to take it off," the guard allegedly replied, "I have to call the police."
"Call the police, then."
Seamster went into the leather store to buy some items she had picked out earlier. The security guard stood outside the store and radioed for backup. Soon, another security guard arrived, along with a man who, with broom and dustpan, looked like a custodian.
When Seamster emerged, the guard told her she would have to leave. Seamster insisted on collecting her two other friends, Andrea Poole and Scarlet Molock, on the other side of the mall. Shadowed closely by the mall employees, Seamster and Buggs set off for the toy store. During the procession, which attracted the stares of other shoppers, Seamster says she asked the guards, "Does it take three or four of y'all to escort us out?"
Her friend Poole says she exploded when she discovered what was going on, exclaiming, "We ain't got no business in this damn mall, anyway, 'cause I know we're the wrong color!"
As the stunned women were escorted out of the mall, Poole says she grilled the guards about the lack of signs identifying the policy. At one point, she says she told them, "You mean these kids can stand here with their pants hanging down around their behinds, but a grown woman who works for the federal government can't wear a scarf on her head?"
The crowd of onlookers grew as the women were marched through the mall. Poole recalls her frustration building. "The more people that stopped," she says, "the more vocal I got." Finally, she says, she turned to some onlookers and demanded, "What are you staring at? They're escorting us out the mall because she has a scarf on her head! They're treating us like we're common criminals."
Seamster, recalling the embarrassment, says, "It would have been different if we had been in there doing something wrong. The point is, if I'm gonna do something deviant, I'm gonna do it to you whether I've got a scarf on my head or not. I could have taken it off my head, but it's a principle thing. I'll be 45 years old in January. You're gonna tell me I can come in your mall and spend all my money, but I can't wear what I want to wear?"
By this time, the only thing the women might have done wrong was to have spent all that money at the mall that day. After all, they had been there for two hours before Seamster was accosted. "Why did they wait?" Poole says. "I'm sure they saw us in the store earlier. They waited until we spent our money."
Seamster says that if it hadn't been for the fact that it was getting late in the afternoon and she had to get the 66-year-old Buggs back to her nursing home, "I probably would have stayed there and insisted that they call the police."
When she got home, Seamster wrote a letter of complaint to mall manager Dan Helmboldt, but it went unanswered. In her letter, she noted, "It was very humiliating and uncomfortable being escorted out of a crowded mall like common criminals. I feel if I were not black that I wouldn't have been approached in this manner. This is not the last you will hear of this."
And it wasn't.
Helmboldt refused to respond to Westword's inquiries about the incident, but a secretary in his office confirmed that such a policy exists.
After mall management refused to comment, Westword contacted Charles Waldron, senior vice president of Macerich, the California-based company that owns the Greeley Mall. Waldron, who works in Macerich's St. Louis office, says he didn't know of the incident involving Seamster until being told by Westword. After conferring with officials in Greeley, he confirmed that it took place and that the Greeley Mall's policy was unwritten and not posted.
"It's obvious that the policy was instituted by the local people there in an effort to reduce any problems there might be with gangs," Waldron says, "but I did not realize that policy was being instituted. We don't agree with that policy. We believe they've gone too far. We've instructed them not to enforce any policy that's not in writing."
That apparently will be fine with many of the mall's tenants. Officials of several stores say they have no such policy and didn't like the mall's unwritten rule on bandannas. Greeley police sergeant John Gates admits that the rural, mostly white town has three or four gangs, but he adds, "We don't get too many gang-related calls from Greeley Mall. Very few." Gates says he was aware of the mall's anti-bandanna policy, which had been in effect for at least a year. The wearing of gang clothing is a "detriment to the atmosphere" of the community, says Gates, but such policies need to be used with discretion.
"This lady [Seamster] doesn't necessarily fit the profile of a gang member," says Gates. "If I had a group of eight to ten kids flashing signs and wearing bandannas, they'd be gone. But that's a totally different situation."
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As for Theresa Seamster, she had shopped at the mall several times without incident until December 3, but it's doubtful she'll be back anytime soon. The incident's racial overtones were not lost on her or her friends.
"You hate to think that," says Poole, "but I still feel that way, and I'm still mad about it. And next year I'll still be mad about it, to the point I won't go to the mall."
As it turns out, Seamster and her friends weren't the first people to be harassed by the anti-bandanna rule. The female guard who escorted them out of the mall expressed sympathy during the forced march, says Seamster, at one point sharing a hard-luck story about having to ask another woman to take off her scarf, only to discover the woman had undergone chemotherapy and had no hair.