The color of money

Everyone gets ticked off at his or her bank sometimes. But imagine how Rodrick Gatterson and Azizi Ansari felt when they went to cash a check and wound up kneeling on the pavement staring into pistol and shotgun barrels. And no, those weren't robbers' guns.

A little before 10am on May 22, Gatterson and Ansari stopped by Washington Mutual Bank's Northgate Financial Center on what they thought would be a quick errand; it was finals week at their school, the Art Institute of Seattle, and they were short on time. Gatterson wanted to cash the $2,000 check, drawn on Washington Mutual, he'd received from a friend of Ansari for an old car. Ansari waited in the parking lot. As Gatterson tells it on a tape recorded by his lawyer six days after the incident, the teller asked him for ID, which he provided, and said the account had funds but that all checks over $500 must be verified against a signature card. He waited; the teller made small talk. "I notice a lady [behind the counter] was kind of looking at me and staring over my shoulder," recounts Gatterson. After "10 or 15 minutes," he continues, the teller "comes back, says 'Okay, the signature's here, it's all set.' Then he punches the computer back up and says, 'Now there's no funds available. . . . You just have to contact the person the check is from and come back at a later date.'"

Meanwhile, Ansari had tired of waiting and entered the bank. He looked for a pen to fill out a deposit slip ("just to fool around," he says), saw Gatterson turning to go, and left. The two drove to Northgate Way and Meridian, where Ansari says he wanted to leave a job application at Film Stop.

There, all hell broke loose. Police officers swarmed on them, guns drawn; apparently they'd even stopped traffic. Gatterson and Ansari recount that the officers had them drop the keys out of the car, stick their hands outside its windows, then exit, drop to their knees, and put their hands behind their backs. Gatterson was particularly nervous because he was holding a mobile phone; he recalled reports of a Seattle man shot to death when police mistook his TV tuner for a gun.

The two young men showed identification and said they were students at the Art Institute. The police dispersed as quickly as they'd appeared; they didn't even cite Gatterson, who only had a state ID card, for driving without a license.

"Casing" the joint

Most of these facts either are corroborated by police dispatch tapes or, says Washington Mutual spokesperson Libby Hutchinson, "appear to be correct." What's in question or in dispute is Ansari's "behavior" (as Hutchinson calls it) when he stepped into the bank, the status of the account from which Washington Mutual refused to pay Gatterson, and, perhaps most important, the actions and perceptions of its employees.

The dispatch tape indicates that a female employee (a "very seasoned" manager, says Hutchinson) called 911 just after Ansari stepped out. "This is not an emergency," she said, "but we have someone who we think just cased the bank like they were going to rob it, and they're still sitting in the car outside, and we just wondered if someone could drive by and look at it." She explained that the caser "stopped by the island like he was going to fill out a form. . . . I smiled at him, and he just walked away."

The 911 operator inquired further: "Is he black, white, Indian, what race?"

"Black, black male."

"How old?"

"In his 20s."

"How tall?"

"Maybe five-eight, five-nine."

"Wearing a cap?"

"A baseball cap, on backwards."

"A jacket?"

"Yeah. Everything was kind of dark."

"Jeans?"

"If they were, they were dark."

Is all this code for "gang clothing"? No one says the G-word on the tape, and it's the police operator who first mentions race (offering "black," tellingly, as the first option). But Gatterson's and Ansari's attorney, Anthony L. Butler, says he heard the term used by the bank's insurance lawyers to explain its employees' suspicions.

Anyone would be scrutinized

Hutchinson insists the Northgate employees "acted in a very appropriate manner" when they deemed Ansari's behavior "suspicious. . . . Any person who came into a financial institution and behaved that way would be scrutinized."

Would you, or a middle-aged white guy like me? I'll bet I can "fool around" with deposit slips all I want and never see the business end of a police 9-millimeter.

A main basis of the bank manager's "appropriate" suspicion seems to be that Ansari just "walked away" without acknowledging her greeting smile. Ansari says he simply didn't notice: "I didn't go in the bank focusing on her. I was waiting for Rodrick." And if he had noticed, would it be so odd for him—impatient and put-out as he was—not to smile back?

Hutchinson says the bank, and especially that manager, had grounds to fear robbers: "The Hollywood bandit was apprehended near there. About one year ago, that same branch was the victim of a very hostile robbery, by someone who jumped over the teller window. Overlay the trauma of that with the training they've received. . . . That manager had gone through six robberies."

But race had nothing to do with those fears, adds Hutchinson: "All of the robbers were white."

Thieves like us

That's exactly the point, argues Butler, after undertaking to find out what kind of man robs banks. He examined over 40 Washington Mutual robberies that made the news in recent years: "The robbers were all white, except one" in a gang of three. The Seattle Times' Arthur Santana reached a similar conclusion in a 1997 feature, "State Has a Bank Robbery a Day": "Typically, offenders are—like [42-year-old Philip] Johnson—white men strung out on drugs." Addictions aside, I may not look like the glamorous robber "Hollywood" Scurlock, but I fit the robber profile better than Gatterson and Ansari do.

Despite these demographics, Butler contends, bank staffers had to be seeing color when they so "outrageously" singled out the two black men. He suggests the same motive to their trying to "stall" Gatterson at the window and refusing to pay him—when, according to a bank statement, the account had over $4,000 in it. Washington Mutual spokesperson Libby Hutchinson says "the teller attempted five times to complete the transaction and was unable to because of repeated actions on that account." A bank statement obtained by Butler shows two automatic-teller withdrawals, that same day and the day before, for a total of $701.50, which the bank later refunded because of "unauthorized ATM use." Butler argues that this is "irrelevant" because "the check was good and they were prepared to pay the money"—until they got antsy about whom they were going to pay it to. And whatever the status of the ATM card, Gatterson wasn't using it; he was presenting a properly signed check.

These are the sort of issues that get hashed out in legal discovery—which these will probably get. Although Hutchinson says a bank manager "apologized profusely" to Gatterson, Washington Mutual rejected a claim he and Ansari filed against it. Butler says they'll now file a lawsuit. The episode, he argues, "raises the question: Just what is a black person's position in Seattle?"

A gay ex-cop vs. Chief Stamper

Ansari and Gatterson don't allege discrimination by the Seattle Police, who merely responded to the bank's call. But another unusual discrimination case was filed against the city, Police Chief Norm Stamper, and an SPD lieutenant late last month by a gay ex-officer, Dan Mathewson. Mathewson alleges that, despite repeated commendations and community awards, he was hounded by false internal allegations of "falsifying police reports" and of "double-dipping" by "working at a coffee cart on Capitol Hill" while on duty. He claims that Stamper, echoing his lieutenant, said it was "inappropriate" for him to be working on Capitol Hill (the center of local gay culture) and ordered an unusual review of his file.

Mathewson finally resigned last year and invested in Capitol Hill's Safari Sports Bar and Grill. He claims Stamper then "placed the Safari's liquor license on hold for several weeks." Five months after resigning, he asked to be reinstated in the department, whose rules let officers withdraw their resignations within six months—with the chief's approval. Mathewson's suit claims such approval is "routinely granted." Stamper refused Mathewson's request.

Three outside factors make Mathewson's claims particularly provocative: Stamper has won plaudits for his sensitivity and outreach to the gay community. He also sparked an uproar confessing, to the P-I's Susan Paynter, his racist, homophobic behavior as a patrolman long ago. And his department has a crying shortage of trained officers.

"We disagree that anything unlawful happened to Mr. Mathewson," says Assistant City Attorney Leeanne Tist. "He chose to resign, he chose to start another business, and he has to take responsibility."

Up in smoke

The best line on last week's market mania, from an investor who'd watched Amazon.com shares fall by nearly half in two weeks (before partly rebounding): "That's not stock. That's crack."

 
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