Death of Suspect's Stepdad Protested

Wednesday, July 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — Thousands of protesters led by the Rev. Al Sharpton rallied Wednesday outside a department store where a black man suffocated while security guards held him in a choke hold.

About 10,000 people chanting ``No justice, no profits, no justice, no peace'' gathered in a parking lot outside the Lord & Taylor store in this Detroit suburb, according to police estimates. The doors near the spot where Frederick Finley died were blocked by police barricades.

No charges have been filed in the June 22 death of the 32-year-old, who was in the store with friends and family when surveillance cameras allegedly recorded some members of the group shoplifting.

Security guards followed the group to the parking lot and tried to detain Finley's stepdaughter and a family friend, police said. Finley punched one of the guards before he was put in the choke hold, according to the police report.

Wayne County assistant prosecutor Kevin Simowski said Wednesday that prosecutors are reviewing the matter.

``It seems that you can go to jail for protesting in Dearborn, but you can't go to jail for murder,'' Sharpton said at a news conference Wednesday with Finley's mother. ``I asked the chief of police, if I lay down in front of Lord & Taylor tonight, would he arrest me. He said, `Absolutely.' But a man can be choked to death in front of Lord & Taylor, and we're waiting on what?''

At least some of the Lord & Taylor guards who were involved are black. The activists who organized Wednesday's protest accused the store of having black security workers scrutinize minority shoppers to avoid the appearance of discrimination or racial profiling.

``It takes racism to a new, clandestine level in corporate culture,'' said the Rev. Horace Sheffield, a Detroit pastor who organized the rally.

``Racism can be black-on-black if white folk have staged this to be black-on-black. I know that if I'm a company with a white loss-prevention officer and if I apprehend a black individual and something happens, it looks far worse.''

Lord & Taylor spokeswoman LaVelle Olexa declined to discuss Finley's death or the protest, citing an ongoing police investigation and a $600 million lawsuit by the man's family against the store's parent company, May Department Stores.

The protesters cheered as several people, including Sharpton and activist Dick Gregory, spoke at the rally.

Jerry Johnson, 58, of Detroit, said he attended to protest companies that ``get around civil rights by hiring a minority to oversee a minority.''

Johnson, who is black, said he believes officials genuinely want to keep cities safe but are assuming that blacks are criminals. ``I think they're doing what they think is best, but it's illegal,'' he said.

After 1 1/2 hours, organizers urged the protesters to leave peacefully, and the crowd quickly dispersed.

Prosecutors have not filed charges in Finley's death or the alleged shoplifting. Police said store cameras recorded members of Finley's group removing tags and holders from jewelry and Finley's stepdaughter putting a $4 bracelet on her wrist.

The case also has caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. The ACLU routinely fields complaints by minority shoppers who say they were subjected to unreasonable force and detention in area stores simply because of their race, said legal director Michael J. Steinberg.

``The ACLU is concerned in general about shoppers of color being targeted because of their race,'' Steinberg said. ``It's a major problem in the malls or suburbs, where African Americans feel they're suspect the minute they walk into a store.

``Every once in a while, there's a high-profile case like this one which raises awareness of the problem.''