The Story Michael Brown Will Never Be Able to Tell

My career as a criminal lasted two weeks, beginning and ending in the summer of 1996. At that time, Tommy Hilfiger was all the rage. To this day, one of my favorite pictures is my mom and I in our living room that summer, her arms around me and a Hilfiger shirt draped around my shoulders—a long-sleeved polo designed to resemble the American flag, but with TOMMY in obnoxious blue letters in place of the stripes.

This Hilfigerphilia led to frequent trips to Kaufman’s. It was the same routine almost every Saturday. I’d catch the EBA downtown, stop at Wendy’s for two junior bacon cheeseburgers, a value fry and a vanilla frosty, and use the bit of money I made from working basketball camps that week to buy whatever fit me from the discount rack.

During one of these trips, I noticed some of the discounted shirts didn’t have anti-shoplifiting sensors. “Hmm,” I thought to myself. “That’s interesting.” As “interesting” as it was, I left the sensorless shirts there. “Basketball players don’t shoplift,” I said to myself. (I used to talk to myself a lot, apparently.)

Yet, as the weekend ended and the week continued, my moral hang-up began to dissipate. By Wednesday, I convinced myself Kaufman’s wasn’t going to miss any of the dozens of Hilfiger shirts on their racks if I walked out with one. By Thursday, I’d managed to convince myself they actually wanted people to steal them so they wouldn’t steal the more expensive ones. If they didn’t want us to take them, I surmised, they would have had sensors.

And by Friday I devised a plan: I’d walk in, take three shirts to the dressing room—a sensorless shirt, one I was interested in actually buying, and one decoy—stuff the sensorless shirt in my book bag, leave the decoy in the dressing room, and pay for the one I wanted.

Admittedly, it wasn’t much of a plan. But I was 15.

Saturday came back around. I went through my regular routine. EBA. Wendy’s. Kaufman’s. I browsed around the Nautica and Polo sections first, figuring that a beeline to the discount rack would arouse the suspicions of all the security guards and bored clerks paying absolutely no attention to me. I eventually made my way to the rack, finding my Hilfiger shirts and a pair of corduroys.

I followed the scheme exactly how I planned it... and it worked! I walked out of Kaufman’s with two shirts—one in a Kaufmann’s bag, and one in my bookbag—and a sense of ironic badass-ness that comes with stealing a $50 T-shirt that took two dollars of material to make, was marked down to $19, and would be out of style in six months.

A nervous grin, an accidental drop of my book bag, or just existing as a young Black male could have led to me getting arrested. Or shot.

In fact, I was such a badass at that point that I tried it again the next week. Same routine. Same plan. And same outcome... except for one thing. The alarm went off as I was leaving the store. I turned around and made a confused face at the alarm, as if I wasn’t fully aware I was walking out the store with a stolen shirt. I didn’t notice any security paying any attention to me, so I could have just continued to walk out. But I was so shook by the alarm that I went back in the store and returned the stolen shirt back to the rack.

I tried leaving again. And the alarm went off again. You could probably see the imprint of my whole entire heart beating through my chest. “Holy shit, they’re on to me.” I thought. “I’m going to get arrested. I’m going to go to jail. And my dad won’t make me pancakes tomorrow morning.” I walked back into the store again. This time, ready to face my fate, clutching my empty book bag in one hand and the Kaufman’s bag with the legally purchased shirt in the other.

But something was off. The bag felt funny. I gripped tighter and could tell the bag and the shirt were wrapped around something hard and indistinguishable. Curious, I took the shirt out the bag, and learned exactly what that mysterious object was: a sensor.

Apparently, the clerk forgot to remove it when I purchased the shirt. Which means I felt all of that fear—of arrest, of losing basketball scholarships I hadn’t even been offered yet, of no pancakes—for no reason. Still, that fear was enough to end my shoplifting career. In fact, I stopped buying Tommy Hilfiger shirts altogether, spending the rest of that summer working camps, playing ball, and using my money to buy Nautica jackets. Because Hilfiger was going out of style.

I’m 35 now, almost two decades removed from that summer. The Hilfiger shirt from the picture with my mom still sits in a box in one of my closets, a #TBT relic from my days as a silly, fashion-obsessed teenager. When my family gathers in Pennsylvania every summer to eat hot dogs and tell stories, that one has often been my contribution. I can (obviously) write about it. I hope to even tell it to my kids one day, when they’re old enough to realize the shoplifting story is a cautionary tale, not a guidebook.

I can sit here and tell it today because I got lucky. If I were unlucky, I could have been stopped by security. If even less lucky, I could have gotten stopped by the police. And considering who I was—a young, cocky, six-foot tall Black male—a roll of the eyes, a nervous grin, an accidental drop of my book bag, or just existing as a young Black male could have led to me getting arrested. Or shot. Or both. And (possibly) killed.

I can even picture how initial news reports might have read. There’d be a mention that I was shot while caught stealing. Maybe it would even include that I was from East Liberty. Sure, it was unfortunate that brave officer had to shoot me, but because I was a kid from the ’hood committing a robbery downtown, I was a burgeoning menace to society, and it had to be done.

I doubt my 3.2 GPA, National Merit Scholar recognition, and status as one of the better ballplayers in the city would make the press. Maybe in a week or so, after a local activist or reporter spoke to my parents… But since the public’s perception of me would have already been clouded by the early stories, it wouldn’t have mattered much. I’d be forever known as one of them: one of the dozens of young Black males killed in the Pittsburgh area each year who deserved their fate.

But fortunately, none of that happened. And so I’m sharing this story because I can. 

And because Michael Brown can’t.