An East Kingston woman said that she and her family were the targets of a racist remark by a fellow shopper at the Town of Ulster Walmart last week. It’s the second time in recent weeks that controversy over bigotry has erupted on the Town of Ulster’s commercial strip.
Kristin Montalvo said she was shopping with her husband, who is Mexican, and their daughters ages three and six at the Walmart on Ulster Avenue on Sunday, March 31 when a man she did not know walked over to them. The family, she said, was standing by a meat case when the man said to them, “Is this a Mexico market?” Montalvo said that she turned to the man and asked what he said. The man, Montalvo said, replied “Am I in a Mexican market, it’s freedom of speech, I can say whatever I want to whoever I want.”
What happened next is depicted on a cell phone video shot by Montalvo and posted on the Facebook page of the local social justice group Rise Up Kingston. An agitated Montalvo follows the man, who’s dressed in jeans and a blue and black jacket, through the store shouting at him as Walmart employees urge her to calm down.
The video posted to Rise Up Kingston’s page shows the confrontation that followed, but not the incident that provoked it
“This guy don’t want us shopping here because my husband is Mexican!” Montalvo shouts. “He feels like he’s in a Mexico market, that’s what this dude just said!”
In the video, Montalvo continues to berate the man as he exits the store and walks to a car. At one point in the video, the man appears to confirm Montalvo’s account of their interaction when she repeats his statement and he replies, “That’s right.” Several commenters on the Rise Up Kingston Facebook page identified the man in the video as an area resident; Ulster Publishing was unable to independently verify his identity.
Montalvo said that after the man had left the store, her brother, who by coincidence was also shopping there, came out of the store and advised her that Walmart employees told him that she had to leave or they would call the police.
Montalvo admits that she was angry at the time, but said she wondered why store employees appeared not to address the man over the unprovoked racist remark.
“I wasn’t in an argument with this dude, we were standing there looking at hamburger meat when he walks up behind us and says that, why would he do that?” said Montalvo. “Yes, I overreacted I wish I could have been calmer, but it didn’t happen like that.”
Montalvo said after she left Walmart she called the Town of Ulster police to report the incident. Montalvo said a dispatcher advised to come to the station to file a report. Montalvo said that when she arrived at the station, a uniformed officer listened to her story, then told her that what had transpired did not constitute a crime.
“He did not write a single word down,” said Montalvo. “He said it’s freedom of speech, there’s nothing we can do. He’s morally wrong, it’s not against the law.”
One day after the incident, Rise Up Kingston posted the video on Facebook along with a post urging viewers to take action. In the post, RUK organizer Callie Jayne asks viewers to call Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III to demand that the case be investigated as a hate crime. The post also asked viewers to contact Walmart corporate headquarters about the incident, as well as another chain store where the man identified in the video is reportedly employed.
Quigley said he asked UPD Chief Kyle Berardi to look into the incident after his office was flooded with phone calls. Berardi in turn pulled security camera footage from Walmart — footage that he said appears to back up Montalvo’s story that the remark was unprovoked. On Tuesday, Montalvo said, she received phone calls from the officer who initially took her complaint as well as Berardi. In both instances, she said, police expressed regret that they were unable to file charges in the case.
“He did apologize and asked how the officer handled it,” said Montalvo of the conversation with Berardi. “I don’t blame them, it’s not their fault.”
On Wednesday, Berardi said that in addition to his own investigation, he had consulted the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office about the incident. Berardi said that the man’s actions as reported by Montalvo were morally objectionable, but did not appear to violate any statute.
“Personally, as a citizen I can’t believe this type of activity is still going on in my town, in my country,” said Berardi. “But myself and my officers are bound by the law. We can’t make an arrest when no crime has been committed.”
This is the second time in recent weeks that a bias incident in a Town of Ulster retail location has made headlines. Last month state police arrested William Sullivan, 20, of Saugerties for an alleged bias incident at Mother Earth’s Storehouse in the King’s Mall plaza. On March 11 Sullivan, who worked at the health food store, allegedly approached a fellow employee — who is Jewish — while she was inside a walk-in cooler, switched off the light and said, “You’re in the gas chamber now. Yeah, you fucking Jew.” The victim’s mother posted her account the incident and management’s response on Facebook, provoking calls for a boycott and an investigation by state police.
On March 22, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared at a local state police barracks to announce Sullivan’s arrest on a charge of misdemeanor aggravated harassment.
Berardi, whose department was not involved in Sullivan’s arrest, said there was one key difference that made the Mother Earth’s incident different — the apparent intimidation caused by Sullivan’s actions.
“To arrest [for harassment] you have to make some kind of threat or put the victim in some kind of fear,” said Berardi. “It can’t just be a passing remark.”
A representative of Walmart said officials at corporate headquarters in Arkansas were aware of the incident and were discussing it with management at the Town of Ulster location. An official statement from the retailer was not available as of press time.