FARGO – So far, an extra sample boneless Buffalo Wing at Cashwise Foods has cost Zebadiah Gartner $500 in fines and court fees, a $54 ticket to Montana, and two nights at the Cass County Jail.
Gartner, 21, an Anishinaabe, doesn’t remember any signs limiting how many sample pieces he could eat at Cashwise Foods in January 2017. He does, however, remember an undercover shopper following him around the store.
“Yeah he was following,” Gartner said. He believes he was profiled. “I honestly laughed when I got stopped because I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I remember seeing him in a different aisle and was wondering why he kept being in the same aisle as he had absolutely random stuff in his basket.
“I have a eye for that stuff.”
He watches because that’s what Native people are accustomed to, he said.
“This happens to my people for years and with me it comes to the light,” Gartner said. “I wonder how I can help the people further to stop it, not just for me. I have a lot of mental confusion on why I'm in this position.”
Many customers partake of sample foods at grocery stores; it’s a prime method for companies to self promote sales, few, if any, however are arrested for taking an extra sample. Some customers say they go back for seconds or thirds. Others say they sometimes save money on the grocery bill and store hop to escape spending money on dinner.
When Gartner took the extra piece of chicken a year ago an undercover shopper approached him, he said, and told him customers could only have one piece. He threw the extra piece away, and was later charged with theft. He pled guilty in February 2017, after he was taken from an Indigenous ceremony at Fargo’s only sweat lodge in an unrelated incident, and a year later, fines unpaid, was arrested again at the Fargo Amtrak Train Station at 2 a.m. by Fargo Police. He was preparing to travel to Montana for another Indigenous ceremony.
The day after Municipal Court Judge Stephen Dawson attempted to sentence Gartner to 10 days in jail for failing to pay the fine, Mayor Tim Mahoney said the city is stepping into the situation.
“Our attorneys are going to talk to the judge on Monday, and we’re going to try to get something different [to] happen,” Mahoney said. “I can’t say how it will come down because it is the judge who has to make a decision. I talked to Erik Johnson [Fargo City Attorney], and he’s going to talk to the judge and see what we can do.”
Mahoney thought the piece of chicken charge was solved after the sweat lodge incident. Since that time, Fargo Police have undergone cultural sensitivity training, and the Native American Commission is working on improving the area where the sweat lodge is located.
Mahoney also contacted corporate Cashwise Foods management, who said they do not want to press charges.
“I said, hey, from your article, ‘It’s over a piece of chicken,’” Mahoney said. “And they said ‘No, no, we don’t really want to do that, we’d be happy to see what we can do for this young man.’”
During the past year, Gartner can be frequently spotted in marches, and Indigenous rallies, playing the drum and singing traditional songs.
“We feel bad about it, and in my mind, he’s on a religious journey right now, he’s trying to do sweat lodges and he’s trying to help people,” Mahoney said.
Gartner’s possible sentence far outweighs his crime, Mahoney said.
“The additional $400, there are outside people who think this is too high for this kid,” Mahoney said. The city plans to ask the judge that “If he minds himself for the next six months, could you do a much less sentence or fine.”
Excluding a driving without insurance charge from 2015, Gartner has no other convictions on his criminal record.
The situation Gartner finds himself in now, after failing to pay fines and court fees, is a “vicious cycle” that keeps bringing in the same people, over and over again, Mahoney said.
“You get into jail, you can’t pay the fine, and you’re kind of screwed and you just can’t get out of that circle,” Mahoney said. “We’re trying to get people so that they’re not always trapped.”
The repetitious circle increases overall costs, Mahoney said, who also said he is a proponent of judicial reform.
“The F5 Project helps people into a job and moving forward, but there needs to be a discussion about is there a better way of doing criminal justice.”
Mahoney plans to start a conversation soon about judicial reform: what are the best methods for helping people, how to start bringing costs down, and how to keep lawbreakers behind bars who are habitual criminals.
“What we get tired of is this merry-go-round, it’s the same merry-go-round we see them in the system over and over again, and is there anything we can do to break that cycle,” Mahoney said.
“The other issue we’re having is the early release from jail, people are released and what do they do? They go back to crime,” Mahoney said. “If we don’t offer them a different choice… the stats from the police department are people are released and what do they do? They go back to crime. It’s a vicious circle.”
Gartner is bewildered by the disruption an extra boneless Buffalo Wing has caused.
“You know, I don't know how I feel,” Gartner said. “Really, man, it feels unreal.”
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