Georgia State Representative Erica Thomas and her nine-year-old daughter were in the express checkout line in Publix grocery store on Veterans Memorial Highway in Cobb County just outside Georgia’s capital city. Little did she know that a short shopping trip would become a terrifying experience ending in the center of state and national media attention.
The dispute started on a Friday evening when Rep. Thomas, a vice chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus, posted a Facebook video accusing Eric Sparkes of berating her for flouting the 10-or-fewer items rule at the Mableton Publix.
While in the express line, Rep. Thomas was angrily confronted by Sparkes, another shopper, who challenged her right to be there. It seems he took offense to Rep. Thomas having 15 items instead of 10. The cashier and the store manager did not ask her to leave the line. However, Sparkes took it upon himself to “police” the situation. According to Rep. Thomas, Sparkes called her “ignorant, a lazy SOB, and told her to go back to where she came from.” All this in front of her child. Understandably, Rep. Thomas was “scared for her life” as she said in the tearful Facebook video following the incident.
Rep. Thomas accused Sparkes of using the “go back” phrase, which echoes a tweet by President Donald Trump that sparked a national uproar. Her account quickly went viral and triggered a wave of support and backlash in Georgia and the nation.
Sparkes denies the “go back” statement but admits he called her the other derogatory names. Rep. Thomas has since somewhat backtracked on that statement. However, it does not excuse or give Sparkes permission to disrespect a pregnant woman with hateful, inflammatory and defamatory names.
A Publix surveillance video of the incident released last Wednesday showed a confrontation that lasted approximately 45 seconds. It did not include audio, so it provided no conclusive evidence of what was said, but it showed Sparkes initiating the encounter by walking up to Thomas as she was checking out in the express lane and pointing to the sign. Cobb authorities don’t intend to file criminal charges in the case after what the Police Department said was a “thorough” investigation into the confrontation.
Apart from the media-manufactured confusion of who did or did not say “go back,” we must not lose sight of the larger issue. Rep. Thomas, like so many other people of color, no longer feel safe in our own country. Because of the toxic tweets and rhetoric spewing from President Trump, America is a hostile and dangerous environment where the new definition of not being “politically correct” is anger and disrespect. Racially charged tirades and violence are becoming more prevalent and explosive. Verbal attacks are common and more frequent. We cannot allow this behavior to become our new normal.
Trump, the champion of white supremacists, continuously demonstrates his disdain for people of color. From caging people in horrendous conditions at America’s southern border, separating babies from their mothers and losing them, to calling majority black countries s-holes, and American cities a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” With each racist tweet, Trump further demonstrates he is unstable, unfit and incompetent to serve as president. He is a craven divider who only sees people who look like him as the “real” Americans.
Because of the horrific example of Trump challenging the citizenship of Americans of color, including President Barack Obama and four United States Congresswomen, people like Sparkes are feeling more empowered to treat us as “other” with no consequences. Make no mistake, “white privilege” in America is real. It has little to do with economic means and everything to do with color.
Sparkes’ attitude is in line with the same type of thinking that leads some white people to weaponize the police against people of color by calling law enforcement to harass us for simply living our lives – knowing that these unnecessary interactions with police can quickly escalate, often leading to arrest . . . or death.
This verbal attack was not only against Rep. Thomas. It was not only an attack on people of color. It was an attack against Americans and America. This country belongs to all of us. We have to be more intentional about standing up to bullies who try to use patriotism as a battering ram. We all have the responsibility to rise up against bigotry and racism.
“Representative Thomas wants the world to know that she’s standing up for the rights of women who have been victimized,” said Thomas’ attorney, Gerald Griggs. Rep. Thomas is nine months pregnant. Her husband is serving our country in Afghanistan.
We are standing with Rep. Erica Thomas. She is not alone.