I thought about not writing this column.
It's not because I don't believe Aleah Johnson's story of being accused of shoplifting while visiting Sesame Place earlier this month.
It's not because I wasn't outraged at how Johnson, a 41-year-old single mother from West Philly, was separated from her two young daughters and treated like a common street criminal.
It's not because I don't believe her story has value.
The reason that I didn't want to write about the lawsuit she has filed is because I'm worn out. Burned out, actually. I am suffering from #livingwhileblack fatigue. It's real. It creeps into my subconsciousness every time I spot a police cruiser in my rear-view mirror. It's there when a store clerk innocently asks, "Do you want your receipt?" My answer always is yes. I'm black. I may need it as proof when I get to the door.
Social media doesn't help. It seems as if every time I log on, I learn of another #livingwhileblack episode. One of the latest involved black Washington University students falsely accused of not paying for food at an IHOP in Missouri.
The incidents, many captured on cell-phone video, have disturbing similarities: A person of African American descent is minding his own business and going about his life — hanging out at a Starbucks; having a cookout at a public park; golfing with friends; redeeming a coupon at CVS; or playing basketball at a gym — and the next thing, the cops are called.
In Johnson's case, she had gone to Sesame Place, a children's theme park in Langhorne, with her daughters on July 14. After going on the water rides and having lunch, they stopped by a gift shop. As she stood in line to purchase a few souvenirs, Johnson realized she was missing her wallet. She briefly stepped outside the store to retrieve it from her older daughter but immediately returned to the line to pay. Granted, Johnson shouldn't have gone outside the store with merchandise for even a second, but she says she exited only about one foot and was back in line moments later waiting to pay for her key chains, mug and other items when security personnel approached.
She was taken to a room about five city blocks away and questioned as a police officer stood nearby. Johnson, who said she could hear her children's voices in another room, maintained her innocence, even going so far as to dump out the contents of her purse to prove she wasn't concealing any store merchandise. While being held, she called her sister-in-law and said, "I believe they are doing this because I'm black and I'm Muslim."
Eventually, authorities escorted her to a cashier so she could finally pay for her items and then let her go. Johnson was told that she was permanently banned from Sesame Place and escorted to an exit. She was frantic with worry about her daughters, ages 14 and 6, until they also walked outside. She later learned that while they had been separated, Sesame Place personnel had questioned them, as well. Johnson's lawyer Brian R. Mildenberg filed suit on July 18 in federal court against the theme park.
I reached out to Sea World Parks & Entertainment, Sesame's Place's parent company, and heard back from spokesman Travis Clayton who told me, "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation."
I've heard it before. Before the summer is over, I'm sure I'll hear it again and again because unfortunately things like this keep happening. There's nothing new about these episodes except for the fact that people these days often document what transpires with cell phone videos and word spreads by social media.
"It is extremely aggravating to be falsely judged based on the color of your skin," pointed out Paul Butler, author of Choke Hold: Policing Black Men (New Press, 2017). "It shouldn't surprise you that some people react with anger."
Johnson has long struggled with anxiety and depression — to the point that she's only able to work part time. The episode at Sesame Place only added to her stress. Even writing about it has added to mine. As I pointed out earlier, this is wearing me out.