Wednesday, October 8, 2008

How an Obama sweatshirt got one Columbus woman banned from UDF for life

No Shirt, No Shoes, NObama

How an Obama sweatshirt got one Columbus woman banned from UDF for life
By Kitty McConnell
Published: Thursday, October 2, 2008 12:13 PM EDT

Forget about politics for a moment.

Forget your feelings about Obama and McCain. Forget that Columbus voters are among the most polarized in the nation. Forget swing states, vice presidential debates and the quickly approaching day of decision. That all comes later.

Remember, instead, the night Hurricane Ike blew through Columbus, tearing trees out by the roots and plunging much of the city into darkness for days.

Like many, Renee Barker spent that humid Sunday night without power. When sleep without air-conditioning proved futile, Barker and her fiancé packed their dogs in the car and went in search of batteries and candles. The neighborhood Giant Eagle was black. The only place Barker could find still operating with power was the United Dairy Farmers store on West Fifth Avenue near Grandview.

Barker walked into the store while her fiancé and their dogs waited in the car. After being told the store had no batteries, the clerk behind the counter, Mark Medina, offered up a curious request: “Can I tell you about my candidate, John McCain?” he asked her.

The comment caught Barker off-guard momentarily. She noticed he was looking at her chest. Then it clicked—she was wearing her Obama sweatshirt. “He picked the wrong girl on the wrong night,” said Barker.

She fired back, “I probably know more about John McCain than you do,” and says she told him, “If you’re really for McCain, I’ll take you down to the local recruiter myself so you can be all that you can be.”

“In the (store surveillance) video, you could see me pointing at my sweatshirt saying ‘Are you kidding me? You’re going to give me a hard time because I wore the wrong thing into your store?’” said Barker, a petite 36-year-old Victorian Village resident.

Barker admits she’s passionate about her politics and other social issues. A former Whole Foods employee who’s recuperating from recent surgery that left six pins in her back, she rescues thoroughbred horses in her spare time. She’s preparing to leave for Uganda in the spring to teach English.

She says she’s donated money to the Obama campaign and concedes she’s not afraid to engage in any challenge to her political beliefs. On this night, though, wearing her political beliefs on her sleeve created a situation that turned quickly from the absurd to the surreal.

She says what she thought would become little more than a political debate turned confrontational when another employee—who Barker describes as “a little hip-hop girl in big clothes”—emerged from the back. Medina told his employee that Barker was a “stupid loud-mouthed liberal,” according to Barker. After a few more words, Barker says she turned to leave as the female employee stepped toward her shouting, “get out of the store.”

Barker insists there was no physical contact, no property damage and, toward the end, only minimal profanity. “I asked him valid questions, and he just put his head down and started sweeping,” said Barker, “and I’m like, ‘You brought it up—you don’t do that to the consumer.’”

Barker’s fiancé watched the encounter from their car, puzzled. “I thought, you know, it might be politics, it might be the weather,” he said. Barker’s fiancé, who asked to go unnamed, said he didn’t think too much of the incident until Medina came to the front of the store as Barker emerged, phone in hand, and began copying down the couple’s license plate number.

At that point, Barker’s fiancé, a recent MBA graduate, who Barker describes as normally easy-going and reserved, approached Medina himself, asked him what he was doing and, when told he was filing an assault charge with police, grabbed the paper with their license number from him, tossed the store’s phone on the ground, left the store and drove home.

Medina called 911—at the same time the police were receiving a higher –than-usual volume of calls due to city-wide power outages—and reported that the couple, whom he described as a white woman and a Mexican (Barker’s fiancé is of Pakistani descent), were intoxicated and had assaulted him and his female coworker. Medina filed a criminal trespass report against Barker and her fiancé, stating they “became verbally aggressive and refused to leave” the store. (Barker denies refusing to leave.)

“He’s calling in 911 like it’s life or death,” said Barker, who heard a transcript of the call, “‘Some Mexican and drunk woman are raising hell.’ That’s why an officer had to show up in the middle of the blackout and take case of that BS.”

Barker and her fiancé went home and, after talking through the incident, decided to call police on their own and find out if, indeed, the UDF employees had filed some police report. When told a report had been filed, and that both she and her fiancé were described as intoxicated, Barker invited police to her Victorian Village home to test them, worried that a phony police report could wind up on their record. Police declined, and have not filed charges against the couple. Barker says when she explained to police what had happened; they advised her to contact United Dairy Farmer’s to get things straightened out. But things only got worse.

Cincinnati-based United Dairy Farmers was founded and owned by the Lindner family, who are no less shy about their politics than Barker herself. Patriarch Carl Lindner Jr., a self-made billionaire and former CEO of the Cincinnati Reds, is a major financial backer of the Republican Party on local and national levels.

The family ranked 205th on this year’s Forbes’ “400 Richest Americans” list. In 2004, Lindner was named by the National Republican Committee as one of George Bush’s 62 “Super Rangers,” the highest fundraising designations for donating in excess of $300,000 to the GOP. In December, the Washington Post reported Lindner was the national co-chair of Mitt Romney’s run for the GOP presidential nomination, while his son, Carl Lindner III, backed Mike Huckabee.

When asked if they allowed political canvassing in any of their stores, consumer relations representatives in the Cincinnati corporate offices responded, “No, we do not,” before declining to give a name or further comment.

Numerous other calls to UDF store and corporate personnel were not returned or declined for comment.

Immediately following the Sunday night incident, which occurred around midnight, Barker called UDF’s corporate offices. Monday evening, she received a call from Medina’s supervisor, which registered as a blocked number on her phone records.

“She was sweet as sugar, told me she’d get back to me,” said Barker. Another day passed. “Once I realized they were doing nothing,” Barker said, she followed the advice of the police dispatcher and called the store for the contact information of a higher supervisor.

Though it was 4:21 Tuesday afternoon, Barker said Medina answered her call and refused to give the supervisor’s number. She called the corporate office again, and was connected, not with a supervisor, but with the senior security specialist for the Columbus UDF zone, Carl Rankin.

“They (were) doing nothing about it, they (were) basically like giving me the finger, especially the head of security was very threatening,” said Barker. “He never listened to my side. I told him I was just trying to reach a manager and he’s like, ‘look Miss Renee. . .’”

Barker hung up with Rankin unsatisfied. An hour after her call to the Fifth Avenue store, Barker’s phone records show she received a blocked call, which she says was a threat. She called police.

According to the Columbus Police report of the incident, Barker stated that the caller told her, “Watch your back, I’m watching you,” and “I know where you live,” then asked her how her pets were doing and that the caller had seen them at UDF the night of the blackout.

“It does not take a brain surgeon to figure out that my number popped up on the UDF phone,” Barker said. “I call to ask for a supervisor and an hour later I get a threatening phone call?” As of Wednesday, police had issued a second round of subpoenas for the identity of the blocked caller.

Later that evening, Barker called the corporate offices once again and reported the threat. “He told me it was not a UDF issue, but that he’d try to give me a call in a couple of days,” Barker said.

A few days later, on Sept. 22, Barker received a letter from Rankin, UDF’s district head of security. The letter cited a “situation” she was involved in at the Fifth Avenue store along with “harassing phone calls to Corporate offices” between September 14-16.

It stated further: “You are being advised that you may not enter any United Dairy Farmers store or property,” and that “several police reports have been made as a result of your actions.”

Neither the Columbus Police nor the city prosecutor’s office have record of the harassment reports Rankin referenced, nor has she received any official notification that charges and/or formal complaints have been filed against her.

“Just because you receive a threatening letter from the corporate office doesn’t mean (everything). They can come down here and attempt to pursue charges, but (even if they do) that doesn’t mean they automatically get them,” said assistant city prosecutor Bill Hedrick.

Barker’s phone records indicate she made 15 calls in all, to the Cincinnati corporate offices, the Lewis Center district offices and Grandview store between early in the morning September 15 through the evening of September 17. Phone records indicate that seven of those calls were spent in transfer or on hold between customer service representatives.

It should come as no surprise that things are so heated on the ground in Columbus this election year. CNN’s broadcast of the first presidential debate last week featured correspondent Soledad O’Brien’s live polling of a focus group in Columbus because it consistently polls as being split by a narrow margin in favor of the Democratic Party. Political analyst for CNN John King noted Franklin County’s prominence on the Ohio map as the only blue county in a sea of red.

“She’s in a central area and a persuadable area,” King said of his colleague in Columbus, “a swing area of a very critical state…in this election and in every election.”

It might be easy to dismiss the whole chain of incidents as personal politics boiling over on a stormy night in total darkness, smack in the middle of a city completely polarized in its electoral politics.

But Barker is no longer amused when that political passion becomes a police incident. “I’m not a patient person, I admit flat out, and I do not like being threatened,” Barker said. “There are a lot of uninformed shoppers who run into UDF stores across the country—a lot of Democrats—and this is where it all began. Now it’s a safety thing for me.”

She’s awaiting the results of the telephone subpoenas and intends to file criminal charges against the caller.

Barker says she’s also considering a civil action against UDF. “Civil litigation is not to be entered into lightly,” she said.

Copyright © 2008 - The Other Paper

1 comment:

Dante's Journal said...

I'd love to Meet Renee Barker!

~ Amy Jo Blevins