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Norwich police investigate alleged racial slurs by Starbucks customer

Norwich — Marcela Lee was in line at the Starbucks drive-thru Tuesday morning as usual, ordering her coffee and breakfast, when the driver in the car behind her started revving her engine and yelling at Lee that she was late for work.

Lee started broadcasting on Facebook live as profanities emanated from the car behind her, even after she was done ordering. As the female driver pulled away from the window, she shouted at Lee even more loudly and called her the N-word.

The livestreamed video was shared on one of the Norwich Police Department’s social media outlets later Tuesday, while Lee marched in the city's Black Lives Matter protest at City Hall, holding a sign that said: “Why am I a N (followed by blank space), because You were Late for Work?”

Norwich police Chief Patrick Daley said officers asked Lee to file a complaint and are investigating the incident. Lee’s video did not show the license plate of the car behind her, but Daley said they have leads and are pursuing an arrest, with a charge of intimidation based on bigotry or race.

Police “told me they were pretty disturbed by what they saw and asked me if I would file a complaint with them,” Lee said Thursday. “They have charges pending now. She didn’t know when she spewed that (expletive) out of her mouth, she would face charges.”

Lee said she hopes the justice system will do its due diligence and that charges will deter the woman, and others, from using slurs. "She might think twice about it next time, and the next time somebody else wants to spew something like that, they might think twice about it," Lee said. "Because a hate crime doesn't go away, it sticks."

Lee, 33, of Norwich works with three homeless shelters in Hartford and has long been active in Norwich on civil rights issues and youth advocacy and in the arts community. She is active in the NAACP and the Greater Norwich Anti-Bullying Coalition and gives motivational speeches at local libraries and for youth.

As an essential front-line worker, she's been coming to Starbucks every day during the COVID-19 pandemic to caffeinate before her shifts. She said she thinks racial tensions that have widely emerged in the form of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody in Minneapolis led to the incident at Starbucks.

"I think some people feel like they've been given a green light to be openly racist," she said. "This was a chance to say, 'No, this will not be tolerated.'"

Lee said she felt threatened by the woman, who also yelled that Lee "was lucky" that she (the driver) was pregnant because otherwise she would've gotten out of her car and hit her.

"I was angry and I was shocked," Lee said of the woman's words. "We're still dealing with this, this is a part of the world that we live in where people think it's OK ... to spew racism and hatred like that."

At Starbucks on Tuesday, employees Luke LePage, Isabella Persons and Gavin Schriever were outraged by the racism their familiar customer encountered.

In the video Lee posted, LePage can be heard telling Lee that she'd be receiving her order for free because of what she had to endure. "Don't let this ruin your day," Persons added.

Lee told the baristas that it wasn't their fault and thanked them for their kindness.

Since she posted the video, she’s had an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike. She posted another video to Facebook, announcing that she wanted to go tip the baristas who stood up for her, and the donations poured in.

On Thursday, Lee returned to the Starbucks where the incident took place — this time, with a crowd of supporters by her side. As she walked through the parking lot to meet the crowd, she cried out "the youth is the truth and we want to thank you."

The crowd — more than a dozen black, white and Latino supporters, some friends and some strangers — echoed her chant.

Lee was greeted by a manager of the Starbucks along with LePage, a shift supervisor, and Persons and Schriever. Through tears, she handed the workers a stack of cash to tip them. Instead of a flash mob, she called it a "cash mob."

"We see you, we acknowledge you and we wanted to thank you for doing the right thing," Lee said. "When it comes to everything going on in this world, you showed integrity."

LePage told Lee that when it came to sticking up for her and reporting the incident to police, it wasn't a question. "It shouldn't be a duty, it should just be common sense, that's what I stand by," he said.

What wasn't seen on her video, Lee said, was that LePage spoke up and told the truth.

In addition to giving Lee her order for free on Tuesday and offering their support, LePage and his colleagues recounted the incident to police to help with the investigation. Lee said Thursday that she felt they didn't have to do that — that they could have said they didn't remember or didn't want to get involved — but instead, they stood up to the injustice.

"Life is about making yourself uncomfortable," LePage said.

Altogether, Lee gave the baristas more than $160 in cash. Supporters streaming into the store — in socially distanced groups of seven — also handed the baristas cash. On Thursday evening, the donations were still coming.

LePage tried to reject the tips, saying they would prefer the money be donated to a racial justice organization, but Lee and all her supporters adamantly refused to take it back. Lee told them to use the money to enjoy their summer or to buy books for school.

"I wanted to make sure that the young people here at Starbucks knew that the community appreciates how much they did the right thing and didn't just let this incident be swept under the rug," Lee said. "They saw that there was a definite injustice — this woman intimidating me while I'm in line to get coffee, and then the racial slurs everyone saw on the video."

"It's important now more than ever for people to see that this is not going to be tolerated — the racism, the bigotry, the threats, the calls to police," she said.

She said she was proud to see it wouldn't be tolerated in Norwich. "I guess it brings me a sense of calm and relief knowing that as we sit here and protest and we speak out against injustices that happen against black people and people of color in the community, it makes me feel really good to know that we're being heard."

Lee said she was proud of the quick response from the Norwich Police Department.

"I'm proud of my people, I'm proud of my community," she said. "The Norwich police were disturbed by what they saw in that video, rightfully so, and I'm incredibly proud of my city's officers and detectives who decided to reach out to me and stand up and say 'Not in our city.'"

"They're not playing, this isn't a game, they're committed to bringing justice to the situation where I had a woman who intentionally used bigotry, intimidation, racism and threatening because she was late for work," she said.

As of Thursday night, police had not announced the filing of any charges. Lee said she hoped justice would be served.

"People are afraid and we're saying no more, no more, no more," she said. "Enough is enough."

t.hartz@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

Warning: This video contains language that may be offensive to some viewers


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