Most of the action takes place at a Quickstop convenience store. Back in 2008, police approached its owner, Alex Saleh. Did he want to make the Quickstop part of "The Zero-Tolerance Zone Trespassing Program"? Saleh said that he was "pro-police, pro-cop," and agreed. A sign to that effect was posted in the parking lot.
But soon, he says, cops started harassing his customers, especially the black ones, when they were doing nothing more than standing in line waiting to make a purchase. Set that aside. Our interest is in Earl Sampson, a black employee at the store.
Here's what happened to him, according to This American Life producer Miki Meek's reporting:
Meek: Before long, it wasn't just the customers being questioned. The police started including a guy named Earl. Alex paid him to do odd jobs around the store. One night, right before closing, Alex sent Earl out to the parking lot with a broom and a dustpan. When he didn't come back, Alex want out to check on him.
Saleh: I see only the dustpan and the broom. And I don't see Earl.
Meek: It wasn't like Earl to walk off the job. The next day when he arrived at the store, Alex asked him about it.
Saleh: Earl said, I was in jail last night. I said, why? He said, for trespassing.
Meek: Trespassing at the store—Earl says he was charged with trespassing where he works.
Saleh: I was upset. I was burning myself inside. I was, like, this is impossible.
Meek: Alex is more than just a boss to Earl, more like a father figure to him. Earl has some mental health issues, and in general, he has a kid-like quality. He first started coming to the Quickstop years before, when he was 14. He had just moved around the corner, but his family life was rough. And his mom couldn't really take care of him. So Alex started keeping an eye on him. Here's Earl.
Earl: That's why I started hanging around the store, you know, it's because Alex treat me like a son, though. Sometimes he let me credit stuff, like milk or something, bread or something. I'd go to the store and get it. I'd holler at him. And then he gave me a job, and I started working. I love my job. I love working at it. We're like a family, though.
Meek: That incident with the police, where Alex walked outside to check on Earl at the end of the night and found only a dustpan and broom, that happened two more times that month.
Earl: They'll like, come and grab me from, like, outside. Like, they won't go in the store and ask Alex or nothing, though. They would just grab me, put me in a police car, take me down to jail, you know? I'm like, well, I work here, though. You feel me?
Meek: So you would say, I work here. And what would they say?
Earl: Come on. You ain't supposed to be here. You trespassing here. I'd be like, ask my boss. I would be telling, ask my boss. They're still, oh, we don't care. They'll take me down.
Meek: Each time the police picked up Earl, they'd book him into the county jail. He'd spend the night there, go to court the next day, and there he'd be given a choice. Plead guilty to trespassing and get out of jail right away, or he could fight the trespassing charge, but it would be a hassle. And it would be expensive. He'd have to hire a lawyer and post bond and wait for a trial date.
So Earl always pleaded guilty.
To jail someone once for trespassing at their job is a miscarriage of justice. To do so repeatedly, over the objections of their employer, who owns the relevant store, is an absurdity. And this isn't something that happened just a few different times. It happened so often that the store owner finally complained to the police department.