By Eve Mykytyn
On March 11, 21 year old William Sullivan allegedly turned off the lights on a co-worker at Mother Earth Health Food Store and said, “you’re in the gas chamber now,” and “fuckin’ Jew.” Kevin Schneider co-owner of the upstate New York store released a statement that: “The situation has been handled and the employee is no longer employed by us. We have never, nor will we ever tolerate hate.”
Amazing, an anti Semitic incident and a rational response. Just kidding.
Sarah Shabanowitz (Sarah) claims that she immediately reported the incident and received from Sullivan what she considered an ‘insincere apology.’ The pair continued to work together. The next day, Sarah said she related the incident to Schneider and told him she believed management had not responded to her concerns. She claims he responded that “My friends have called me worse.”
On March 15, Sarah claimed an assistant manager rebuked her for telling co-workers that Sullivan was ‘anti Semitic.’ The manager told her that, “He [Sullivan] was just making a joke,” and either to get to work or be fired. She claimed she was warned not to discuss the incident, word of which began to circulate after her mother posted about it on social media.
Sarah then relayed her account to the Ulster County Jewish Federation and filed a formal complaint against Sullivan with the state police.
On March 22, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state police Superintendent Keith Corlett held a press conference to announce that Sullivan has been charged with aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor that carries the possibility of up to a year’s imprisonment. Although Cuomo is a lawyer and should know better, he said, “Bias-related crime, hate crimes, are not just wrong,… they are illegal," Hate crimes require an underlying crime, and under New York criminal law aggravated harassment entails that the actor knows that his actions will cause harm or the threat of harm or that the actor creates physical contact or the threat thereof with the intent to harass. Without harm or the threat of harm, obnoxious speech is just that, and protected by the first Amendment.
Cuomo’s office said he wanted to bring attention to the rise in anti-Semitic episodes in the state. Cuomo then rushed out a press packet with transcript, photos and video of his event. This is ironic; Cuomo and the state legislature had just come to an agreement on a law that would ban the public release of arrest mugshots and information to protect people from having their reputation ruined simply because they were arrested.
So, now Sarah the stock clerk is represented by a Manhattan civil rights attorney, Ilann M.Maazel. Maazel wrote that his client would pursue “every available remedy” in response to what he called Mother Earth’s “badly bungled handling of her complaint….They did nothing to keep Sarah safe, they belittled anti-Semitism in the workplace and they told Sarah to keep quiet.” This certainly sounds like the forerunner to a lawsuit against the store for what seems to me like no damage.
Social media has delivered outrage and calls for a boycott against the store. Schneider, on behalf of Mother Earth, said the company is taking action to shore up their anti-harassment and discrimination policies but, he said, parts of the story told on social media and in the press were misleading — both about the incident itself and the company’s handling of the complaint. He added, “I’ve just been trying to sell good products and do good things for 41 years, I always thought of us as an asset to the community.” Presumably Schneider will learn, if he has not yet realized, that a stupid statement by a stock clerk might ultimately cost the owners their store and the town of Saugerties its health food store.
As for Sullivan, he appeared before Town Justice Marsha Weiss on March 26, to state he could not afford a lawyer and ask for court appointed counsel. The case was continued until April 30.