Chicago trans woman alleges discrimination at Indiana apple orchard
by Matt Simonette 2017-10-11
A transgender Chicago woman is contemplating legal action after she and her friends were ejected by police from a popular Northwest Indiana apple farm.
LaSaia Wade and 11 friends were asked to leave County Line Orchard in Hobart, Indiana, on Oct. 7 after staff objected to Wade's dog, a pit bull, which Wade said she repeatedly explained was a service animal. She maintains that the ejection was the result of racism ( Wade is African American ), transphobia and ableism, allegations the farm denies.
Wade, a prominent activist on transgender-rights issues, told Windy City Times that she has the dog for seizure alerts as well as emotional support. Dogs for seizure alerts specifically fall under Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations.
According to Department of Justice regulations, businesses and other entities are only allowed to ask if an animal is required for a disability and what tasks the animal is trained to perform. Persons requiring service animal accommodations are not required to carry documentation or certification proof. Businesses and other entities may not prohibit particular breeds of animals based on prior experiences.
Wade said she was stopped by several employees throughout their visit, beginning at the front gate. An employee there asked if the pit bull was a service dog, Wade recalled. "I said yes, and that was pretty much it at first."
But the questioning did not stop, she said. About three minutes later, another employee approached.
"She was a little more aggressive," Wade said. According to Wade, the second employee asked to see the dog's paperwork, and Wade reminded her that such a request was illegal. That person told Wade she needed to "check in up front," which Wade told her she'd already done. Wade was told the dog needed something visible indicating it was a service dog; Wade explained that is also not the case, however. Vests and other similar items signifying service animals are not required under ADA rules.
The employee backed down, but about four or five minutes later, yet another employee approached. This person seemed to be "a secretary or something," Wade said, and told the group that "unless I had something physically showing that she was a service dog" they'd have to leave.
"Again, I said, 'This is illegal for you to ask me [about the dog] or demand that she have something on her proving that she is a service dog,"' Wade said. "What I did was pull out my phone [which had photographic proof of the certification] and went to the front and showed it to them. They let me go, and once again I thought everything was good."
But Wade was asked yet again three more times. When asked just before the group tried to take the farm's hay ride, someone pulled her aside, leading to the incident resulting in the police being called.
"By then I was irritated and frustrated, because I had been asked multiple times," she explained. "I even showed the certificate [on the phone] when, legally, I shouldn't have to."
Wade added, "I told [the employee], 'You're speaking to the dog before you're speaking to me. You don't have the right to speak to her. I don't even feel like I'm human right now. You're calling my dog 'beautiful,' but you're not speaking to me like I even have rights.'"
She further maintained that "no one there knew about the laws and information about ADA" and said that this last employee refused to look at the proof on her phone. "We live in a technology age, and I'm not going to carry paperwork around. That's just something that you don't do," Wade said.
In an Oct. 10 statement to Windy City Times, Ryan Richardson, whose family owns the farm, maintained that Wade had not provided them with even the minimal amount of information about her service dog.
"Based on our understanding of ADA with regards to service dogs, there should be no relevance in the certification or legitimacy of certification of the dog," Richardson said. "The ADA guidelines outline the following criteria for us to follow: 1 ) is this a service dog? 2 ) is the dog present to provide service associated with a disability? 3 ) what services has the dog been trained to provide?
"We were lacking cooperation with the above inquiries and guidelines. We were also fielding concerns from parents that there was a pit bull with a retractable leash on site.
"It is not uncommon for us to have visitors with service dogs on property. Due to a lack of cooperation and inconsistencies regarding the above, we made the decision to escort the dog and the guest from the property."
Wade maintained that the Hobart police officer, who had been hired by the farm, was "aggressive. He wouldn't listen to me. I wanted to say, 'I know you are a policeman and doing your job, but you didn't have to be a dick while doing your job at the same time. You could have asked and seen the certificate, and you could have seen that I was in the right. I could have helped to file a report, that this is discrimination.' But that's not the point. He was there to secure capitalism in that moment, not to secure a person in need, [who is also] a person with a disability."
Footage of Wade and her friends' ejection from the premises was widely circulated on Facebook, and on social media they have maintained that the ejection came about because of racism, transphobia and ableism.
But Richardson maintained in an Oct. 9 statement that the employees were only concerned about enforcing the pet and service animal policy: "Shortly after the incident this group made the decision to portray via social media that County Line Orchard, its staff and the Hobart Police Department were discriminating against the group based on race, gender and or sexual orientation," he said.
Richardson added, "We find this claim to be offensive and disturbing based on the fact that none of the staff, the owners and or the police were aware of any description or characteristics of the guests other than their unwillingness to answer questions in regards to the pit bull.
"County Line Orchard and its staff have worked extremely hard to champion diversity in the work force and our customer base. Our own diversity as a company and the attention by owners to create and support an open and diverse working environment is what makes our organization special.
"We find it incredibly sad that this group chooses to use our attention to a pet policy to label us as something opposite of our beliefs and integrity," said Richardson.
Richardson attempted to phone Wade Oct. 8 to apologize. She subsequently posted the message to social media. County Line Orchard officials said that their Oct. 9 statement, emphasizing the service animal policy and the allegations of Wade's non-compliance, came about because the episode had been blown up on social media.
"Yes, I am very sorry for all involved that an incident like this happened at our farm," Richardson said Oct. 10. "In my 12 years of owning it we have never had to ask a guest to leave. We are passionate about having an environment that families can feel safe and create memories.
"We have had dog attacks in the past and are very concerned for the safety of all of our visitors.
"… We have hosted thousands of service animals, brought in by all types of visitors and have never had a problem.
"Our policy is congruent with ADA policy and we do not require paperwork. We were simply inquiring about the tasks the dog performs and if the dog was necessary for a disability, neither of which were made clear to our staff at the time.
"… I would love nothing more than to have the group come back and get to experience why so many folks flock to the orchard each year. My team pours their heart and soul into this business and we are passionate about serving every guest that takes the time to visit."
Wade said that she has received more than 10 death threats since going public with the story, and is contemplating legal options.
"I'm talking to some people now, because I was in the complete right," she said.
She admitted to "feeling disgusted with humans right now. … I understand that the orchard is probably a big deal for Indiana, and carries a lot of jobs for people. But they weren't even treating me as human when they did what they did. For me to get pushbackeven when I had the law behind mewith people saying I'm in the wrong, shows that you don't really care about civil rights or anything like that. For [my dog] to be discriminated against because she's a certain kind of breed is a whole other level."
In light of the misinformation being spread, it has become necessary to state the following:
On October 7th, LaSaia Wade and a group of 11 queer and trans friends visited County Line Orchard in Hobart, IN. Upon entering the orchard, LaSaia checked in her service dog. Due to differing understandings in how said dogs should be outfitted, she asked if she was allowed to have her dog at County Line and was given verbal clearance by four different staff members. It is of note that La Saia was told she would not be asked for further verification after said clearance.
While attempting to board the tractor that drives people deeper into the orchard, two additional employees stopped LaSaia saying they needed verification of the dog's clearance nullifying the assurances offered mere moments before. Although she provided documentation, the employees stated that they needed to check in with management before they could let LaSaia and her dog move any further. Instead of asking for the guidance of their management, representatives from County Line Orchard called the police. Officer Adam Ahmad (Badge 127) responded, and in seeing that an officer was responding instead of management, members in LaSaia's party began filming immediately.
The posted video, which has since gone viral, begins just seconds after Officer Ahmad arrives instead of minutes as people are alleging. This video (as well as the others shot) was filmed as a protective measure; black people and other minorities have disproportionately been the victims of police violence and the police response instead of the anticipated managerial one was alarming and concerning. The video begins with that LaSaia was sitting down next to her dog, who was sitting next to her silently when Officer Ahmad told her to leave.
He responds: "The owners of this property no longer want you on the property. If you refuse to leave again, you're gonna be arrested for criminal trespassing. This is private property, ok?"
LaSaia says: "I have one quick question."
Officer Ahmad: "Regardless, I'm just letting you know right now. You need to leave right now or you will be arrested for trespassing. Regardless of the case, the owners no longer want you on this property. So, you have to leave now."
LaSaia: "I feel very uncomfortable with you near me, right now, please, because you are giving me really bad anxiety. If you want to walk in front of me —"
Officer Ahmad: "I am the police and you are breaking the law right now and I need you to leave."
This exchange highlights the rapid escalation of this situation and offers example of the antagonism LaSaia was subjected to at County Line Orchard. Officer Ahmad was called in to evict LaSaia after she was given permission to be on the property by the staff. Four County Line Orchard employees gave clearance for LaSaia and her service animal to navigate the grounds and because of their disagreement with that decision other staff members decided to engage the police. Officer Ahmad did not attempt to gain clarity in this situation, did not ask to see the paperwork for the dog or honor requests to show him said documents, and refused to have a dialogue with LaSaia. Instead of acting as a mediator, Officer Ahmad acted as an enforcer for the orchard threatening LaSaia and members of her party with arrest for "criminal trespassing" and daring to speak up about the discrimination taking place.
He later threateningly yelled at the videographer to "Back away from me". The videographer responds, "I'm allowed to film you." Officer Ahmad countered saying, "Yes, not this close to my gun. Back away from me".
The fact that the officer did not answer LaSaia's questions, did not look at her official animal documents, threatened to arrest her for criminal trespassing, threatened to arrest others for speaking up for her, and then threateningly made reference to his gun to the videographer are all signs that the situation was not handled properly by the police.
The obvious staff confusion in orchard policy around service animals, the poor and antagonistic response by employees, and the calling of police instead of management over a customer service issue due to conflicting information offered by staff points to this situation being handled improperly by County Line Orchard.
In the video's description we noted that this incident was evidence of ableism and anti-blackness. LaSaia's service dog was present with her because she assists her in managing her care related to her disability. She disclosed this to the staff and was harassed because of employee ignorance around such animals, the law, and an ambiguous company policy. This incidence points to anti-blackness because despite disclosing information not required by law, she was not believed, was mistreated and subjected to embarrassment by being ejected by the police.
Anti-blackness doesn't just occur when someone calls you a name, it's also subtle. It's present in not having your truth believed and being questioned to the point of experiencing harassment. It's evident in people speaking to the animal accompanying you and not you. It's present in people exaggerating and outright lying about what you said or did so that they can assume the posture of victimhood. It's present in the assumptions people make about your intent.
We sincerely believe that if this were a white person, the situation would have been handled much differently and the police may not have even been called.
While the officer potentially did not know that LaSaia is queer and trans, he did know she is black and we believe that she was mistreated due to this. This video has now garnered over 568,000 views, 6,042 comments, and 3,911 shares on Facebook as of October 12, 2017 at 3:00PM.
This video was shared to point to the discriminatory nature of what occurred and the online responses to this video reinforce this. The fact that LaSaia, as well as other members of the group, have been receiving public and private statements of harassment including death threats, exemplifies what we want to highlight: people of color, queer, and transgender folks are subjected to discrimination and mistreatment in many forms.
The orchard's request for police intervention and the responding officer's aggression was the first example of how excessive reliance on police escalates situations and places marginalized people in danger.
This danger is evident in the thousands of Facebook users' statements against black, disabled, queer, and trans folks which reveals just how much anti-blackness, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia have continued to intensify and deepen the wounds of this instance of discrimination.
On October 8, co-owner Ryan Richardson left a voicemail for the videographer apologizing for the experience our group had at the orchard stating " [I] understand we didn't handle a situation with you guys and your friend and your group very well". Following this, the orchard released a statement falsely accusing our group of "unwillingness to cooperate with [their] staff and security team". The reality is that the staff was repeatedly shown documentation for the service animal by LaSaia and no one presented themselves as a member of the orchard security team at any point during our visit.
This is why the incident of the police officer evicting LaSaia Wade should not be narrowed to arguments about service dog/emotional support animal documentation and rights.
It should not be diminished to a dispute about what "law" was broken (e.g. trespassing onto private property, etc.)
It is not about who is more at fault: County Line or Officer Ahmad?
This is about this being an example of anti-blackness and the excess use of police officers, which are an extension of historic slave patrol.
LaSaia should have never been asked to leave her dog behind; dogs have been allowed at County Line before.
The officer should have never been called. Staff members could have dealt with the situation.
The officer should have never threatened to take her to jail.
The officer should have never threateningly referenced his gun (or put his hand on his gun).
This is not about one officer or one instance of discrimination against a black person.
This is not about one bad apple. This is about an entire orchard of violence that stems from the roots of this nation's racism and mistreatment of minorities.
In the aftermath of this situation, it has become clear that there is need for restitution, policy revision, and apology.
We ask that:
LaSaia Wade receives financial restitution for this situation and be compensated for the gas money and emotional labor she expended as a result of this situation.
County Line Orchard produces a clearly written protocol (and visible signs) about their policy related to support animals including emotional support animals, service dogs, and therapy dogs.
County Line Orchard produces a clearly written employee protocol about how to handle eviction situations which should include information on the following:
Who will handle eviction situations?
Who is the first line of management/security
Who is the official authority on those decisions?
What constitutes a need to call police?
County Line Orchard offers a public apology that includes:
A statement about their unnecessary employment of police intervention
A statement about how involving police puts black people in danger
A statement acknowledging that four employees gave verbal permission and permitted LaSaia and her dog to access the orchard
County Line Orchard addresses the homophobic, transphobic and racist harassment we have received from hundreds if not thousands of people.
The events that transpired on October 7th have brought to light that there is need to address the treatment of marginalized persons including people with disabilities and people of color as well how we need to resolve conflicts within community without police intervention. This statement and associated asks are offered as a means to address the discriminatory treatment of LaSaia Wade and to mitigate any future harm individuals would experience at County Line Orchard because of the identities or disabilities they bear.
Written by: Alicia Crosby, Val Holdahl, Hannah Jones & Jes Scheinpflug
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