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Employees quit Mystic toy store, alleging racism after backlash from protesters

Mystic — Nicole Jackson was taking a day off from her job at Mystical Toys on June 3 when her phone started to light up with notifications from Instagram and Facebook. Messages flooded in to the store's social media accounts that Jackson managed, accusing her employers of being racist.

In at least 10 messages, protesters told Jackson that an older man who worked at the family-run toy store in Mystic had shouted profanities at a group of peaceful protesters and the day before they'd seen him rip up a protester's "Black Lives Matter" sign.

Jackson, who is black, quit her job the next day.

Black Lives Matter protests took place on East Main Street several days last week, with protesters often gathering in front of the store.

Jackson, 24, said the protesters who messaged her said employee Frank Sinnett, who is married to longtime owner Barbara Sinnett, was the one who ripped up the sign and shouted at the protesters, blaming them for a loss of business. The protesters said that when Sinnett yelled at them, they were lying face-down on the sidewalk outside the store for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, commemorating the life and death of George Floyd, a black man who died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for that long.

"As soon as I heard that, I knew I couldn't stay there because that goes against everything that I stand for, everything that I've been taught in my life ever, so the next day I went in and I quit," Jackson said.

She had worked at the store for five years and said she wasn't surprised by the allegations, that this was the latest on a long list of incidents she felt were racist.

"I decided that this was the final straw for me because we are in such a crazy climate right now in the world where I think this is really the time where you're going to pick a side, you're either on the human rights or you're on the wrong side in my opinion," Jackson said.

Several other former employees spoke up this week, saying they recall instances where the Sinnetts treated black customers differently than white customers, assumed black children were more likely to steal and made inappropriate comments about disabled customers and interracial and same-sex couples. The Sinnetts deny all of the accusations.

Last June, a New York City school also accused the store's employees of racist behavior, penning a letter to then-First Selectman Rob Simmons and Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce President Peggy Roberts after visiting Mystic on a field trip.

Jeffrey Imwold, assistant principal of KIPP NYC College Prep High School in the Bronx, said in the letter that he had brought 80 high school freshmen to Mystic on a field trip, along with 15 chaperones. All of the students were black, Caribbean American or Latinx, he said. While waiting for their bus, the group got caught in a downpour and took shelter under the Mystical Toys awning. About five students went into the store as about 15 others gathered outside.

That's when Imwold said Frank Sinnett locked the door, took down the “open” sign and closed up shop.

Imwold said he watched through the window as Sinnett followed the students around the store. He said he saw no behavioral issues that would have led to the students needing to be monitored so closely or denying entry to other students.

However, Imwold, who is white, said Sinnett offered to let him into the store.

"The only difference between me and my students that he would have been able to see through the glass is that I am white and my students are not, which suggests that he locked our students out and followed them around based on the color of their skin," Imwold wrote in his letter.

Roberts said she recalls receiving the letter but the chamber could not take action because Mystical Toys is not a member.

In a phone call this week, Simmons said he spoke with the principal and told him he was disappointed to hear what he'd experienced, and spoke with Frank Sinnett and asked him to describe his policy for locking his doors. Sinnett said they lock the doors whenever there is a crowd, Simmons said.

"I think you know that people who live in downtown Mystic become overwhelmed in summer months with tourists," Simmons said. "I don't think it had anything to do with the students' race."

The Sinnetts and their daughter Carrie Spinner said this week that the store usually closes and locks up whenever there is a big crowd in the area: during parades, at Christmastime when crowds gather for Santa's visit and on St. Patrick's Day. Frank Sinnett said he was working alone the day the students visited and chose to lock the door because there was an entire busload outside and he knew it would overwhelm the store.

When asked if they were racist, Frank Sinnett said in an interview "not really" and Barbara Sinnett said "I don't think so."

"If we were racist, why would we hire a black girl?" both said, referring to Jackson. "Why would we hire her in the first place, and why would we keep her on for five years?" Barbara Sinnett said.

Frank Sinnett, 81, said that on June 2, he was working in the store alone while protesters gathered across the street. He said he went outside and was wandering around the store front, tidying up as he normally does.

Sinnett said he saw a woman sitting on one side of one of the store's benches. On the other side of the bench was a piece of blank cardboard. He thought it was trash, he said, so he ripped it up to throw it out.

He said that all of a sudden, the woman sitting on the bench shouted "that's my sign" and signaled for other protesters to cross the street toward the store. The other side of the piece of cardboard, which he said he did not see, said "Black Lives Matter."

"Of course I wouldn't have ripped it if I saw that," Sinnett said.

Sinnett said he doesn't remember if he apologized to the protester and he went inside and locked the door. He said that he did not go back outside that day, or the next, and said he never yelled at or spoke with protesters.

"He doesn't even swear," his wife said. "I don't know where they're getting this from."

Linus Ignatius, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Stonington, attended the protest on June 3 and was one of the people who sent a message to Mystical Toys on social media, complaining about alleged racism by an employee or owner.

Ignatius said he was lying on the ground in front of the toy store, chanting "I can't breathe," when an older white man who worked at the toy store came out onto the sidewalk and shouted "(expletive) like you are the reason I haven't had any business in months."

Ignatius shouted back, calling the man a bigot and telling him to get over himself, to which he said the man responded "get over yourself" and used more profanity.

Margo and Jesse Morris of Stonington said they were at the protest and heard a man who worked at the store shouting at protesters.

Several other protesters posted on social media calling the store's owners racist and urging people not to shop there. Jackson and several other former employees posted statements on Facebook denouncing the alleged incident and claiming other instances of racism.

In the days following the alleged incident, the store has received dozens of phone calls, handwritten notes and online reviews from former customers saying they will no longer shop at Mystical Toys, Spinner said. Some callers have threatened to "ruin" the business or "shut it down."

On Wednesday evening, the side of the store was vandalized. "BLM" — which stands for Black Lives Matter — was spray-painted on the brick wall in black. An anonymous resident volunteered to power-wash the wall and the writing has since been removed, Spinner said.

Spinner said she is fearful that the store will continue to experience vandalism or other forms of "retaliation." She said she and her parents are fearful that the store will be looted or that they may be hurt.

"I'm afraid they're going to kill you," Barbara Sinnett said to her husband on Thursday. "When you're closing up here at night, I worry that you aren't going to come home."

Frank Sinnett said that they've had many new and returning customers come in to offer support and say they will shop there.

Anna Welch, 20, who is white, started working at Mystical Toys in October after she and her husband, who is in the Navy, moved to New London from Massachusetts. Welch quit her job on June 4, the same day as Jackson.

"I quit because of the racism," she said. "There was no way I could be associated with that, I thought it was disgusting."

She said she wasn't surprised when she learned that the Sinnetts were being accused of racist behavior.

"I have witnessed their blatant racism, homophobia and hatred to anyone that's not like them," she posted on Facebook after she quit. "Putting up with the hate-speak privately was one thing but after such a public show, I knew I couldn't stay."

"If I were you, I would literally give my money away for free before I'd give one penny of it to them," Welch wrote.

Jackson recalled an incident where a vendor was in the store with a line of baby dolls. Barbara Sinnett, she said, gave her the black dolls and said "I can't sell the blackies."

The owner said she never made that statement, but admitted to giving Jackson the dolls. She said the dolls were too expensive to sell and they often gave Jackson merchandise they could not sell.

Last week while speaking to The Day, Sinnett and Spinner pulled black and brown baby dolls from their shelves to display on the counter to show that they sold dolls with diverse skin tones.

Shelby Larubina, 22, of Stonington also worked at the store from 2015 to 2017 and said she remembers instances of racism, homophobia and ableism.

"If you came in and you weren't thin, white and/or able bodied, they probably had something to say after you left," she said. "I can't tell you how many times I felt absolutely ashamed and embarrassed while working there, which made leaving it behind very easy."

When Jackson first applied to work at the store, Larubina said, the Sinnetts referred to her as "the black girl" even though they knew her name.

She said she also heard Frank Sinnett make comments to Jackson's mom about not understanding how she was white and her child was black. Jackson recalled those comments, along with Sinnett telling her mom that her choice to have a mixed-race child was "irresponsible" and "unfair." The Sinnetts said they never spoke to Jackson's mother.

Spinner said that last year, the Sinnetts settled a lawsuit with a former employee who sued the store, asking for paid maternity leave. She said that many of the employees who made claims of racism, homophobia and sexism against the store were friends with the former employee who sued them. They would not disclose the name of the employee.

She said she thinks this situation is a type of payback or retaliation by a group of workers she called "entitled" and "bad apples." She said she and her mother are disappointed in the people they've hired and disappointed in their generation. Spinner said she doesn't think the store will ever again hire employees outside of their family.

Barbara Sinnett, who is 76 and has owned the store since 1992, said the accusations are "the worst thing to ever happen in my life."

Jackson said she stands by her decision to quit, which she said was fully based on experiences of racism.

"It's just unacceptable, we can't stand for it," she said. "And what do we look like if we continue to go there, continue to give them business, if I continue to work there, what kind of person is that? You can't be for the cause when it's convenient, we have to be for the cause always."

t.hartz@theday.com

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