Willis is the founder and director of Oregon's Kitchen Table at Portland State University and executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. She is the author of a textbook, a book of essays and two books of poems.
I love grocery shopping. I love planning a meal and making a list and then walking down the street—a little shopping bag tossed over my arm—to my neighborhood grocery store. I’ve been going to that Fred Meyer for more than thirty years, and I still adore the first sight of the produce section right inside the front door—a mix of colors and smells and neighbors furrowing their brows over still-hard avocados. It is where mammal and vegetable meet, and it is beautiful.
Before the pandemic, I was a daily shopper. Part of my after-work ritual was to pop into the store to choose the freshest tomato or peach or head of radicchio. It made me feel like I was French. Or at least like I was still connected to the tiny spark of sensuality dampened by the endless to-do lists of work and family life.
During the pandemic, my husband and I shifted to a weekly shopping trip, and it stuck. I get up Sunday mornings, make a cup of coffee and flip through a stack of cookbooks as I plan the week’s meals. I draw up a list that mirrors the layout of the store, and we go together. It’s like a date. With sandwich bread and butter lettuce. We often see friends there. We chat with them. We see the guy who lives in the park across the street returning bottles for cash. We chat with him. We see the greeter—Sam, who is always dressed to the nines—and our favorite checker, John, whose dry wit is a surprise and a delight. We chat with them. Sometimes we buy a little plastic tray of sushi to split, and sometimes the sushi maker is behind the counter. So we chat with her, too.
A couple of Sundays ago, we showed up as usual. David gathered the dog-food-making supplies (Yes, we make our dogs’ food. Don’t judge.), and I—as usual—fussed and picked over the produce. As we stood chatting with John at the checkout, we noticed two guys in bullet proof vests going in and out of the automatic door to the parking lot. One of them moved an unmarked car with a big spotlight to a space right in front of the entrance. Black synthetic pants, indeterminate badge, the aforementioned chesty dark vest, and each of them with a thigh holster strapping a matte black handgun to his body. They read as riot police. Or National Guard.
I start to look around the store. Oh my gosh, John, I asked, did something happen?
No, no. Those are the new security guards.
It was like throwing bait fish to great whites. David and I peppered John with questions. Why are they wearing bullet proof vests? Why are they scowling? What is that car for? And why in the name of everything holy do they have guns? Mostly, the answer was shoplifting.
I hotfooted it home, calmed down, and called the store manager. Same story—so much theft, they had to do something, vandals broke windows a few weeks ago, yada yada. Of course, bullet-proof vests 1 and 2 were not there when the windows were broken because it was the middle of the night. And to my repeated question of, so, you’re going to start shooting shoplifters, the answer was probably not. Don’t get me wrong. Eric, the store manager, was very sweet. He listened carefully, answered my increasingly repetitive questions, didn’t treat me like a crank, took my number, and told me they were “still working out the bugs.”
Yesterday afternoon—after a couple of weeks away for work and family travel—we were getting desperate for some staples and it was Senator’s (our youngest dog’s) birthday, so I needed to buy him a watermelon (Remember: don’t judge.). Again, broad daylight: I walk into the store where an armed security guard is standing behind a podium—yes, a podium—in the flower department. Now I love the flower department, and I consider flowers a staple, so I quickly gathered up some greens and thistles and fat summer roses, but the pleasure of picking out my flowers stem by stem was seriously diminished by an armed man in a bullet proof vest staring at me over his, um, podium.
The rest of the shopping trip was pleasant enough—brown rice, seltzer, six bustlingly ripe peaches, the watermelon— but as I went to leave the store, one of the black-pants-bullet-proof-vest-thigh-holster dudes was stopping every single person, asking to see their receipts. When it’s my “turn,” he glances over the receipt, yellow highlighter in one hand, the other hand free, presumably to grab his side arm. He highlights some random numbers on the receipt, and mumbles have a good day. My heart is pounding because I am nothing if not a rule follower, but I look right into his eyes and say my day would be better if I didn’t have to share my shopping list with an armed man. His eyes open a tiny bit wider and he barks out a half-laugh, half-cough. No. I’m serious, I say and walk to my car, my ears ringing with the blood that has rushed to my head.
I know this has been happening in Black neighborhoods for decades. I know I’m living in my middle-class white-lady bubble where I don’t have to face the hourly presumption that I’m up to no good. So let’s stipulate that I’m late to the issue, and I should have been paying more attention. That’s true. About this issue and so many others.
But late as I am, let’s take it seriously. I—and let me just speak for myself here--am now going to be stopped by a guy with a gun every time I run out of oatmilk (Do. Not. Judge.). And I know that my encounter is pretty benign compared to the encounters that people—like, say, young Black men—have with men armed by the state and corporations. These encounters with weapon-toting authority figures—and the inevitably worse ones where people are stopped, shaken down, arrested, shot—are the ones that the Fourth (unreasonable search and seizure), Fifth (right to not to incriminate oneself, due process), and Sixth (right to counsel, jury trial, etc.) Amendments to the Constitution are intended to protect us from. Before we go any further, all you nerdy constitutionalists need to stand down. I am well aware that the Bill of Rights is intended to protect me and you and the kids in my neighborhood from the government and that Fred Meyer and its parent company, Kroger, are not the government. But in the moment, it’s hard to make the distinction. It sure feels like I’ve had a compulsive encounter with someone with lethal power.
Let’s play a what-if game. What if my 22-year-old Latino neighbor and I refused to stop and dutifully present our receipts to the guy with the thigh holster? Do we think he would have just let us walk away?
Here’s another one. What if I lived in Texas? And what if, say, my receipt showed that I had bought a pregnancy test? Is that information I should be forced at gunpoint to give to a guy with the DA’s office on speed dial? And before you go all that’s an extreme example on me, do you want a guy with a gun to demand a receipt that documents your hemorrhoid cream or athlete’s foot powder? Even the relatively benign prescription I picked up yesterday revealed that I have to tranquilize myself within an inch of my life to face a trip to the dentist. A fact that’s not that impressive for an adult woman. And honestly not something I wanted to share with an armed stranger.
And so, yes, the fact that police accountability measures and restraints do not apply to armed private security is exactly the point. For the foreseeable future, we will be subjected to regular encounters with potentially lethal authority without any of the protections against it. And no matter who I vote for, there is nothing I can do to rein in that overreach. I have no standing in those decisions; the accountability is between shareholder and corporation, and I am just a deeply suspect bystander.
In addition to the legal conundrum we find ourselves in, there’s also a tremendous civic cost to bringing guns and bullet proof vests into the produce department. A grocery store is convivial. It’s a third place—neither work nor home--where we see our neighbors, where we teach each other how to tell if a cantaloupe is ripe, where we have chance encounters. It’s a place where we witness folks flirting, and struggling and negotiating with their toddlers. And in the depths of the pandemic, when coffee shops and churches and libraries were closed, grocery stores were some of the only places we could witness the lives of others, where we could encounter people other than our immediate family members. John and Sam and Eric and all those other Fred Meyer employees were indeed essential workers. They were essential because they kept us fed, of course, but they were also essential because they kept us connected to them and to one another.
Yesterday, I did see Sam, looking dapper in his gray suit and pink pocket square, a huge smile on his face. As I blew through the flower department, I said hi, but I didn’t stop to chat because the guy with the gun and the podium just radiated move along. I was rattled from the beginning, so I’m certain I smiled less and hurried more as I dashed from the baking aisle to the pharmacy. I did business in Fred Meyer, but I didn’t really do civics there--it felt like a series of transactions rather than a series of encounters. And now, I wonder who else didn’t linger in that store yesterday, what other conversations about weather and gardens and tough days at work didn’t happen, what other advice about soothing a colicky baby wasn’t offered. I wonder about the consequences of our neighborhood store treating us as if we are not to be trusted—does it mean that we will start giving each other the side-eye too?
As for me and David, I’m pretty sure we will stop going there on our weekly shopping trips. We’ll choose the store up the street that is smaller, more expensive, bougier. And I’ll know that not everyone has that option. And I’m pretty sure I won’t see the guy who lives in the park. And I won’t see John or Sam. And my world will become just a little more white lady with choices and a little less anyone who can scrounge up enough change for a Diet Coke. Of course, that is a loss for me. And I guess it’s a not-very-significant loss for Fred Meyer. But more than that, it’s a loss for Portland. It’ll become one more place where we treat each other with suspicion and joy is suppressed and civic life is checked at the door.