Thursday, December 13, 2012

Apple Police State?

A pretty disturbing news story today from my old hometown of Newton, MA. In essence, a 44 year old Chinese woman from the sheltered town of Newton went shopping for a few iPhones in New Hampshire...and ended up writhing on the ground, tasered by two local police officers. Read that again. Now, clearly there are more details to this:

  • The main "issue" is that the woman tried to buy more than 2 iPhones. Apple's policy is only 2. They told her "no." She claims to not have understood, but the Apple store folks say she was being obstinate, and refused to leave.
  • The woman claims to not understand English. She's 44, lives in Newton, MA (a pretty upscale suburb of Boston), is engaged to a resident there, so it's probably a longshot that she did not understand "no."
  • The woman allegedly had $16k in cash on her at the time.
The real story behind this is that Apple is trying to clamp down on the fact that some markets do not yet have the iPhone 5, and are willing to pay a premium to get them. They ask friends or family traveling to the US to buy one on their behalf and bring it back, and usually pay a premium for it. Apple is upset over this black market, so they have instituted the limited number of iPhone purchases rule. 

Apple has every right to do business any way they want. In this case, they want to build market demand, so that when they launch in that market, they can see the expected explosion of pent up demand. Apple has every right to institute their policies on who they will or will not sell to; they are a company with retail stores, and every retailer has the right to refuse service, unless they are discriminating. And that's what is the question here.

The woman is from China, a market that Apple does not yet serve. The woman has a lot of cash on her. The woman is very insistent on getting more iPhones; the Apple Store folks claim she had been in just a few days earlier, trying the same thing. Cupertino has told all the stores to be on the lookout for these potential resellers. But here's the catch: the Apple Store, in essence, discriminated against this woman: she was not explicitly saying or identifying that she was a reseller, but because of her ethnicity and other clues, they racially profiled her. That's...bad.

But then it gets worse.

Because the woman refused to leave/could not understand she was being asked to leave, the enlightened Nashua, New Hampshire police were summoned to deal with the "trespasser." That's right, local law enforcement was called in to physically enforce the store's policies. My grandmother taught high school in Nashua; it's not always the most...enlightened community. Remember, the woman claims she does not understand English; I'm pretty sure the only Chinese speakers in Nashua are bussed in from Boston's Chinatown to work in the local restaurants. So, when the woman did not comply with the older white male police officers speaking in a foreign language, the police made the horrifyingly bad choice to Taser her, in front of the store, in a crowded mall at Christmas. Jingle bells, jingle bells....BLOOD CURDLING SCREAM OF AGONY, TORTURE AND PAIN: 


So, who's at fault here?
  • Apple should not be putting their retail staff in a position like this. If Apple is so worried about this, as the most profitable company on the planet, they can spend a few bucks at the holidays to have special staff to address this. In my days running electronic retail, we hired private security, trained to detain the offender quietly, quickly, and privately. They were not armed, but were extremely effective.
  • Apple store employees racially profiled this woman. They may have been right, but that doesn't matter: they could have easily been wrong. They cannot and should not be in a position that has them taking actions based on race; they did. Would this have happened to a typical white woman from Newton in her 40's, shopping in the only mall closest to the MA border, because NH does not charge sales tax? Of course not: they would have assumed the woman was a lawyer, or married to one, and would have been terrified to engage her this way, even if she was obstinate. But Chinese? Call the cops.
  • The Nashua police have to understand just how horribly wrong they were. The woman was not violent, and was clearly scared. They may have tried to resolve it peaceably, but, by making the unconscionably bad decision to use non-lethal, but painful, force on a civilian who's only crime was to be denied the American pasttime of shopping, they reinforced the stereotype of New Hampshire as a backwoods throwback. By defending their actions, as they do in the video, they make it worse. There  is a level of judgement required, and, no matter how powerful Apple is to retail, the local police should never use force on a shopper, unless there is violence threatened or in place. They may have been procedurally right, but they are absolutely wrong.
  • The woman must be able to function in an American society. She may indeed have been reselling the iPhones, or not; that's immaterial. She lives in Newton, MA, a 40 minute ride from that mall. She is engaged to a local resident. While it's ignorant to expect her to "speak the language," it's not ignorant to expect her to know the local laws and traditions, or if not, be accompanied by someone who does. In Singapore, an American was caned for possessing chewing gum. That was the local law, and he was ignorant of it. Ignorance is not innocence; same here. Police officers wear uniforms for a reason: you need to be able to identify them, no mater what language you speak. If they detain you, you need to comply; if not, you risk a lot more. 
So, while there is plenty of fault to go around, the fact that Apple is now, in effect, using the local law enforcement to defend their desire to cut down on black marketeering, even though the money is legitimate. That's eerie. Let's just say two planeloads of Chinese tourists flew in tomorrow, each with enough money to buy 10 iPhones. Let's see, that's about 300 passengers...times 10 iPhones each...ok, 3000 iPhones sold. Local stores make money, Apple makes money. The 300 tourists fly back, and sell the iPhones for 2x. That's 3000 iPhones Apple got the money for...in a nation of 1.3 billion. Yep, I can see those 3000 phones absolutely killing the local market.

Apple can do better here, and should. Tim Cook should offer to take a taser, in public, to apologize. Will he? Of course not, although all indications are he is a much more compassionate public face for Apple than Saint Steve. But when your product is in such demand that you are turning business away, and calling in law enforcement to risk their lives to enforce your policies, you need to make some changes.

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