John Colson: Step back, take a breath, relax

John Colson
Hit & Run

It would appear that Michael Francisco, the Carbondale man arrested at Carbondale’s City Market grocery store on Christmas Eve in 2020, has hastily been adjudged guilty of pointing and scowling while Black, which isn’t something I think of as a crime in this town.

But that, in a nutshell, is the accusation from a female “associate” who was working at the relatively new gas station at the Carbondale Marketplace, which is the recently built commercial shopping center where City Market is the anchor tenant.

As I write this, on March 8, Francisco is due to appear in municipal court today to learn his fate as a consequence of his seemingly dastardly deed.

There seems to be a lot of fog surrounding the Dec. 24 incident, at least according to the news accounts I have read.

According to a story in Carbondale’s weekly newspaper, The Sopris Sun, by freelance writer James Steindler, the incident started after Francisco, a 57-year-old immigrant originally from Belize who has lived in Carbonate for a decade, had gassed up a vehicle before heading into the grocery store, where he once worked.

For some unknown reason, the woman in the clerk’s booth at the station felt “uncomfortable” because, she said, Francisco had pointed a finger and “looked angrily” at her, a facial contortion that the other employee in the booth, who actually took Francisco’s payment, apparently did not see and could not corroborate.

Steindler’s article also notes that the same cashier told police she had once before felt “uncomfortable” in the presence of a Black customer at the gas station.

Continuing with the reported narrative, Francisco went inside the store and rounded up a few items for purchase at the self-checkout aisle, unaware that a message had somehow gotten from the gas station to a manager inside the store. This manager reportedly turned to Carbondale’s top cop, Police Chief Kirk Wilson, and asked that Francisco be directed to leave the store.

Wilson, the story relates, called for a couple of cops and then left the store, perhaps assuming his officers could handle the situation appropriately.

That, it seems clear, is not how things turned out.

The two cops told Francisco he was “trespassing” (remember, he worked at the store) and had to leave.

Francisco, who reported he had moments earlier exchanged glances with the store’s general manager and had noticed nothing amiss, reacted with confusion and reportedly some back talk, then “indicated he would like to get to the bottom of what was going on.” He also said he had done nothing wrong, asked to be permitted to leave, and was then forced to the ground with his hands behind his back while the cops cuffed him, searched him (including removing his cap and feeling through his hair), and arrested him for “disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing government operations.”

Wilson, a former Rifle cop who was named Carbondale’s chief last April, has stood by his officers. But he also has given notice that he will not be happy if this whole case turns out to have been a misunderstanding and exaggerated report by someone at best unused to dealing with people of color, or at worst harboring some sort of internalized bias against such individuals, whether on the part of the store’s employees or his officers.

And that, in the same nutshell version, is how we got to the point where The Sopris Sun’s letters columns were crowded this week with letters from outraged citizens angered by Francisco’s treatment by all involved. And I’ve got to say, the situation certainly does not present good optics for the store or the cop shop.

One letter writer to The Aspen Times, Matt Roeser, likened the incident to one nearly three years ago in a Philadelphia Starbucks, where a store employee called the cops on two Black men seated at a table (but who had not bought coffee as they waited for a friend). The two, very like Francisco, were arrested for “not complying” with police orders and for trespassing, and the case sparked a racial-justice outcry very like the sentiments expressed by letter writers addressing Francisco’s case.

I don’t know exactly what went on in this instance, not having been there, but I cannot avoid the feeling that it all was an avoidable overreaction on the parts of some or all of those involved.

Lacking further evidence of actual wrongdoing on Francisco’s part, I have to wonder, along with some letter writers, if justice might best be served by dropping the charges, apologizing to Francisco, making sure all of the overreactors get a little training in dealing with people whose skin is shaded differently than their own, and getting on with life.

These are racially overheated times, to be sure, and we who were not there and can only draw conclusions from what we read and hear in the news (KDNK-FM radio in Carbondale has a good account on the March 4 archive) ought not to jump to conclusions at this point.

But we might all benefit from taking a step back, a deep breath, and relax enough for a closer look at our various behaviors in this case.


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