A 16-year-old boy patronizing a Wal-Mart store in southern New Jersey took over the public-address system and ordered black people to leave, angering customers and prompting company leaders to apologize, police said today.
The unidentified teenager, who is from Atlantic County, N.J., was collared Friday evening on charges of harassment and bias intimidation, police said today. Authorities released the suspect to the custody of his parents.
Several shoppers have been boycotting the retailer since last Sunday when someone accessed the Washington Township, N.J. store's public address system and announced: "Attention Wal-Mart customers: All black people leave the store now."
The store immediately admonished the remarks and issued an apology to shoppers in the store and then through the media several days later.
Officials are staying tight-lipped on the arrest, but more details are expected to be released at a press conference Saturday. They won't release the boy's name because he's a juvenile, and they don't know whether he has an attorney.
"This was an extremely disturbing event on many levels," Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton said at a news conference. "Any statements like these that can cause harm or grave concern must be addressed as quickly we possibly can."
Authorities wouldn't say whether the announcement was planned or made impulsively. Police said they were also investigating a teenage boy who accompanied the suspect to the store, but had not charged the other boy.
In the wake of the incident, angry and offended customers lambasted the store for the ease at which someone could make a storewide page through several phones inside the store.
Wal-Mart said Friday that an internal investigation uncovered new evidence suggesting that a shopper may have made the page. The company said it has already updated the store's intercom system to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
Washington Township Police and the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office have been investigating the case as a possible hate crime.
It was the latest in a series of problems the retailer has had in its dealings with minorities and women.
There have been several past instances of black customers claiming they were treated unfairly at Walmart stores, and the company faced lawsuits alleging that women were passed over in favor of men for pay raises and promotions.
In February 2009, the retailer paid $17.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in its hiring of truck drivers.
And the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company in May 2009, claiming some Hispanic employees at a Sam's Club subsidiary in California were subjected to a hostile work environment. That suit alleges managers failed to stop repeated verbal harassment, including the use of derogatory words, against employees of Mexican descent.
However, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said the company has worked hard in recent years to show it cares about diversity.