I'm on over decades long REI member (years ago, I either did not have a membership or used my spouses), I'm an American with darker skin tones and I've spent a good deal of cash at various REI stores across the US.
Yesterday (5/30/21), I decided to take an afternoon drive to the Pearl to specifically visit REI. Because of the uncertainty, neglect by public servants and sporadic violence in Portland, I have to gut check when I decide to go downtown.
As I walked towards the store I noticed a BLM table out front w/a black gentleman selling t-shirts and other political materials. Not a problem. But the moment I entered the store I was "greeted" by a woman who insisted I adjust my "gator" to her liking. I insisted the gator was fine, it covered my nostrils to what I felt was a sufficient level...that being in a position to capture CO2 exhalation out of my nose.
I proceeded into the store and began to browse as I normally do. The store had a decent sized crowd and I was aware of the fact (about right for PDX) I was maybe one of a small handful of people of color at the time. There have been a few occasions in the past where a security guard at the front, went a bit overboard with "can I help you find something at the store today".
As I'm browsing, a store member (could not make out if it was the same person at the door, but I think not) and I meet near one of the aisles. She inquired if she could help me find something. I responded no and then she launched into I need to pull my gator (which, I again stressed is covering the openings of my nose) up higher to some unspecified height. I told her my gator was fine. And asked if this shopping experience would be a continuation of micro-managing my every move in the store. From a black man's perspective, this felt all too familiar. An empowered white woman hawking around and making demands of a black man (with an every watchful eye for shoplifting) who only want's to shop (unfortunately, at a place does not really want him there) and carry on his affairs in peace.
She became insistent and ironically had little concern for social distance. As she continued on I promptly demanded the she back the "blank" up. Under no circumstances (as former military and self-defense enthusiast) do I allow others (in a state of anger or confrontation) to violate what I consider safe distance. In her case, I of course immediately worried (I have no idea of her background or intentions and of course wondering why she is being so insistent with a 250lb, athletic black man wearing a mask, hiking boots and camo-military head cover) of instant, on demand victimization.
Sure enough and without hesitation, she launches into the offended, victimized white woman. Her voice became raised and she demanded I leave the store and she would not tolerate that type of language. And of course, par for the course was white woman employee #2, jumping to her defense that she saw everything that happened. Having been in this situation far too many times than I care to remember (pre-COVID), I'm of course (after the dramatic "I saw everything that happened", like there was something beyond me asking someone in my face to back the blank up) looking for the gathering crowd wondering what this terrible man did to this poor white woman.
The woman went on to explain the store does tolerate bad language directed at employees. I was like okay, you are in my face over your interpretation over how I should wear my gator (which has zero health benefit as it's a light mesh (like dozens of others in the store, being worn in endless variations) and now you are offended that I asked you to back up from me. I did not call her out of her name or make any derogatory comments directed at her person.
She went on to explain that the store has a policy for wearing mask and that combined with my actions against an employee - my behavior would not be tolerated. My response was that I was wearing a mask when I came in the store, I have no problem with the so called mask policy and what did she expect approaching an adult male, whom she knows nothing about, in such an aggressive manner? I then asked for her name (not too surprisingly, she responded with the I'm too afraid and uncomfortable to give you my name) and that I wanted to file a complaint. She then decided to call over a manager.
A gentleman by the name of Reed responded. And immediately, the women launch into the victimized white woman saga, of I abused an employee, they were intimidated and the worn out victimization trope that folks like me have experienced one too many times in the past.
I explained to the manager that I felt victimized and assailed by the employees. They can't own the experience and be the arbiters of how I felt and my defense reaction...which was no more/less to say in no uncertain terms, back away from me. I find it interesting, that in downtown Portland, with a BLM table out front, homeless near the intersection and the ongoing threat of a flash protest/riot, and explicit graffiti plywood coverings on neighboring buildings, that REI staff were losing their minds that I used as they put it the "f-bomb"...a single utterance of the word, not explicitly directed at a person - but rather to emphasize a defensive/directed action.
The manager went on to explain that abusive actions against employees are not tolerated. I said that's fine, but no abusive actions occurred on my part. I actually felt abused and reacted appropriately. The employee does not know me, she does not know my experience and it was not cool to approach me in the manner that she did. He went on to explain the store policy of wearing mask...I responded that this was nothing more than a straw man conversation as I had a gator mask on when I entered the store. I also stated to Reed that REI is pushing the envelope for a HIPPA case.
He responded, there are no HIPPA violations in play at REI. He went on that REI lawyers and the state have said there are no issues. I responded, the topic has not played out in Court in any fashion and remained ripe for judicial review. A lawyers interpretation or opinion is not the law and we will soon see how this works out. Again, I was wearing a gator mask and not violating any REI edict or interpretation of state mandate.
Please do not forget the context of the situation. I am a black man in a sea of white folks, with one woman claiming to be the victim of some sort of abuse - while she demanded, with many observers (without context, this created a very dangerous situation for me, as patrons/employees could have easily interpreted criminal action or the possibility of threat to their persons) I leave the store. Fortunately, the manager and I had a reasonable conversation (the employee walked off) and I felt it was important (for my safety/well being) to ensure that all witnessed a calming of the situation and there was no true injury or foul. That goal was achieved, the manager stressed they want to keep a safe, healthy environment for their patrons - not sure what I was considered & did explain that I have shopped at the store many times in the past. With much shame, I felt I had to explain that the Salmon boots and shorts I wore at the time were purchased from that same location a month or two ago. I was not some guy who just walked off the street.
He declared I was in good standing (I did not go there, but really?) and could continue shopping. I so wanted to leave (you could cut the tension in the air with a knife, and the emotional experience and level of embarrassment in front of dozens of customers was overwhelming) , but that is exactly what the woman wanted me to do. In my opinion she never saw me as a customer. She saw me as perhaps one of the black folks selling t-shirts out front (I'm being presumptuous that they are not also REI patrons) and not a customer who has spent many hard earned dollars at REI over the years.
I did continue to shop and when asked by Reed if I needed any help, I explained that because of the disruption, I forgot what I came to REI for. What should have been an enjoyable, Saturday visit to one of my favorite stores (and trust me, I have given you guys a pass over the years, regarding staff behavior/indifference), I felt (not unlike pre-COVID) belittled by entitled people, who have zero sense of social awareness and the implications/cost of their actions. In this particular case, there was the added sense of vindictiveness, with the insinuations of abuse, making a scene and demanding I leave the store.
I appreciate the team members who subsequently came over to offer assistance, including a very kind person who provided a good comparative analysis of solar panels - one of which I purchased. While, (as a matter of safety/perception) I thought it was extremely important to end the visit on a positive note, I also thought it important to share this experience on this REI forum.
Hi @mimartech - Thanks for reaching out; we appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with us. We have passed your post along to the Portland store manager.