Customers stand outside the Community Food Co-Op on Cordata on April 2, 2019. // Photo by Oliver Hamlin
By Ian Haupt
Members of The Community Food Co-op have filed a civil rights lawsuit in United States District Court against the business for alleged racial discrimination against a member in 2017.
Gia Buu Dam, a Vietnamese refugee and Bellingham resident, reported suffering multiple alleged instances of racial profiling and discrimination by Co-op managers and employees, according to a press release by Junga Subedar, a community lawyer for the Whatcom Civil Rights Project.
Subedar said Dam hopes the lawsuit will create institutional changes at the Co-op. Dam and husband Adam Nyman, a math professor at Western, filed the complaint.
“Ms. Dam is bringing this [case] to try to bring positive change that’s necessary to make it safer at places like the Co-op in town,” Subedar said. “Where people feel safe to shop there, people of color especially, so that they have access to healthy food and groceries that are there, just like everybody else.”
The complaint says Dam was deprived of accommodations provided by the Co-op to members who are white.
“The Community Food Cooperative strives to be an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone. While we are unable to comment on pending litigation, we are saddened to hear a customer that had a poor experience in one of our stores. We take all customer concerns seriously and have been actively engaged in training and education since the original complaint in 2017,” outreach manager Amy Esary said as their official statement.
The Co-op promoteson their website striving towards a goal of equity, diversity and inclusion through their strategic plan. They say they challenge systems of oppression and their effects on their business and the community.
The complaint states 10 causes of action, facts that if true provide a right to sue and would justify Dam and Nyman’s right to compensation. They also request the Co-op take necessary steps to prevent future discrimination of customers.
According to the complaint, the Co-op’s actions allegedly violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and 1964, the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the Consumer Protection Act. It also includes torts such as breach of contract, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision.
In the complaint, Dam alleges junior store manager Brittany Wahlberg, senior store manager Wynne Marks and the Co-op discriminated against and racially profiled her by accusing her of stealing from the store.
According to the complaint, in March of 2017, Dam and Nyman went to The Community Food Co-op Cordata, 315 Westerly Rd., for dinner at the hot bar and to use a soon-to-be-expired member coupon for groceries. While shopping, Dam used the store restroom to try a face-cream sample but was confronted by Wahlberg, according to the complaint.
The junior manager allegedly accused Dam of putting a pastry in her pocket and bringing it into the restroom in an attempt to steal it. The complaint reads, “Wahlberg told Ms. Dam, ‘You have to come with me.’”
Dam said Wahlberg then escorted her into the cafe and eating area, where Marks allegedly wrongly accused her of theft. The only merchandise Dam brought into the restroom was the face cream sample, Subedar said.
The complaint says Dam was never given a chance to defend herself. Stunned and feeling powerless, Nyman watched as his wife was humiliated, according to the complaint.
The couple was prevented from accessing store goods and services granted to other customers, the complaint states. Subedar said Dam and her family have not returned to the Co-op since.
“It was just too traumatic [for them],” Subedar said. “They have not gone back to the store.”
On their website, the Co-op offers an online form to report incidents that break their Anti-bias, Harassment, and Racial Profiling Policy. The page includes a definition of racial or biased-based profiling, that reads “stopping and questioning an individual or identifying that individual as a potential suspect of criminal activity, without justification, and solely due to their perceived or actual ethnic origin, disability, or other characteristic protected by Federal or State law.”
The complaint says the discrimination was due to Dam’s race and/or national origin. But the complaint itself does not include support for a discrimination claim.
“I think we need to base [the reason for discrimination] off the experience of the person that actually was confronted with this goes by, from this person’s account,” Subedar said. “That’s what profiling is—you are going out of your way to say certain people are stealing when you don’t have a credible basis for it necessarily, you know by just looking at them.”
Subedar said it seems like there was no other reason to accuse Dam of theft besides racial or ethnic profiling.
Dam and Nyman have requested a trial by jury, Subedar said. Senior U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman is assigned to the case. A court date has not yet been set.