‘Unwanted subject’: What led a Kirkland yogurt shop to call police on a black man

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Byron Ragland is a court-appointed special advocate and a visitation supervisor. He was overseeing an outing between a mother and her son at a frozen-yogurt shop when two police officers showed up and asked him to move along. (Danny Westneat / The Seattle Times)

He turned out to be supervising a parental visit, and is also a nine-year Air Force veteran. But the employees were scared of him and the police asked him to leave anyway.

When I play the 911 call for Byron Ragland — the emergency call about him — I study his face. I expect that maybe he’ll get angry.

Instead he looks sad. When it ends, after three minutes, he sits back across the table and his eyes mist up a bit.

“What’s my reaction?” he says, after I ask. “My reaction is that this was just another Wednesday.”

It was a week ago Wednesday when Ragland was sitting in a Menchie’s, the frozen-yogurt franchise, on Northeast 124th Street in Kirkland.

Ragland, 31, is both a court-appointed special advocate and a visitation supervisor, so his job is to oversee meetings between kids and the parents who have lost custody of them.

That’s what he was doing at the store — he was supervising an outing between a mother and her 12-year-old son. The boy wanted ice cream, so the three drove to Menchie’s, arrived together and had been sitting there for about half an hour, visiting, when Ragland looked up to find two police officers standing at the table.

“They asked me to leave,” Ragland said. “They asked for my ID. They told me the manager had been watching me and wanted me to move along.”

Ragland did “move along,” he says — though that phrase, as if he were a stray dog, made him bristle. The police report reflects that the Kirkland officers were told he was there working. In fact he was legally required to be there overseeing the mother and son.

“Ragland had two associates (female adult and male juvenile) with him, who stated they were there with him for visitation,” the report says. They were asked to leave anyway, and they did.

“Store employees … told me that he had been in the store for a while and did not buy anything, and he was not making them feel comfortable,” says an “unwanted subject” report. The employees “were both thankful that Ragland was gone.”

Ragland is a nine-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, a staff sergeant who served as a jet-engine mechanic in Turkey, Germany and Qatar. He is also currently a psychology student at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

Of course I have not yet mentioned another defining feature about Ragland — the one that, at least in this story, seems to him to be all anybody can see. He’s black.

The 911 call alone is like a three-minute case study in implicit bias and assumptions.

The store owner, Ramon Cruz, called 911 and asked the police to come in part because Ragland had been sitting there not ordering anything. The owner was not at the store, but was calling on behalf of two store employees, who are both identified in the police report as female and white.

“They’re kind of scared because he looks suspicious,” Cruz tells the dispatcher. “All he does is look at his phone, look at them, look at his phone, look at them.”

Cruz tells the dispatcher that Ragland is African American. There’s no mention that Ragland had arrived with a mother and child, both of whom are white. The store has had problems recently, Cruz tells the dispatcher, with “the homeless shooting drugs in the bathroom,” and also a robbery.

The dispatcher then says: “We can have the officers come there and tell him to move along.”

Astonishingly, that’s exactly what happens — even after the officers arrive and are told that the three are together and having a supervised parent visit.

I say this is astonishing, but it sure isn’t to Ragland.

“You listen to that 911 call. He says right in there that I’m not doing anything,” Ragland said about the store owner’s call. “But that’s all it takes in America — for you to be black, and to be somewhere you’re not supposed to be. And where you’re supposed to be is not up to you. It’s up to somebody else’s opinion.”

Ragland said he’s used to people questioning what a black man is doing with white families, or supervising kids. But in this case no one at the store bothered to ask — apparently because they were too afraid of him, according to the 911 call.

The store owner, Cruz, said the police call had nothing to do with race. He said the store employees were not aware Ragland was with the mother and son, because he was sitting adjacent to them.

“This is not racial profiling, though,” Cruz said. “I mean I’m Asian, I experience the same thing. It was a misunderstanding, which sometimes do happen.”

One reason this story is potent to me is that it doesn’t conventionally qualify as “news.” There’s no harrowing video of a confrontation, nor did Ragland go to the media (I heard about it from a tip). Ragland also wasn’t arrested, as happened in the infamous Starbucks incident in Philadelphia in April. He says Starbucks flashed through his mind when the officers approached him in Menchie’s, and so he simply … left.

Nobody got “hurt.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t damaging.

“You want to stand up for yourself, as a man, or as someone who was just doing his job, and say ‘hey, this isn’t right,’ ” he said. “But in the moment I’m thinking: ‘I’m a black man, and If I start emoting, I might not walk out of here.’ And so you rationalize to yourself: ‘What’s the big deal, it’s just Menchie’s, just leave.’ But then later, you realize that you gave in — that you consented that this is the way it’s going to be, to always be.

“Living this kind of mental life will drive a person insane,” he added.

I told Ragland that I would just try to present his story. But I do have questions. Why in the world are the Kirkland police functioning as uncritical mall cops? Why didn’t anybody ask Ragland what was going on? How in the year 2018 are we still this clueless, to the point of being dehumanizing, around the issue of race?

For its part, the Kirkland police announced Saturday, after this column was published online, that it would investigate whether officers followed department protocol.

At the end of our interview, Ragland allowed that listening to the 911 call did make him angry. But he wanted to hide it from me to avoid a whole other stereotype, the “Angry Black Man.” So his reaction came out sad instead.

“How would you feel hearing that you made people so scared and uncomfortable that they called the police?” he said. “For me, that’s just Wednesday. I try not to let it consume me. But it’s hard not to conclude that I walk around in a certain skin, and that’s all that matters.”

Staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this report.

Danny Westneat: or dwestneat@seattletimes.com. Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics.