Customers add to the damage robbers caused


The second worst part of this story is the two guys bursting into the store last Saturday afternoon with guns drawn. The store was packed with customers. Thus begins the worst part of the story.

The two guys with guns had masks pulled over their faces and surgical gloves on their hands. They ordered everybody to get down on the floor, except for the manager, who had the keys to the safe.

"Open it," they said.

Outside, on Greenmount Avenue just below 33rd Street, the area was filled with neighborhood shoppers. The robbers did not care. Inside the crowded store, customers had their bodies on the floor and their hearts pounding. The robbers may have understood something about human nature.

"Open it," they said now, "or we shoot."

The manager went to the safe and had one thought in his head: "Hurry up and open the safe." What kind of men walk into a crowded store in the middle of the day to stage a robbery? Desperate men. His hands fumbled with the lock.

The instant the safe door opened, one of the gunmen reached in, grabbed all the money he could handle, and the two masked men headed out the front door to Greenmount Avenue. And behind them, quite suddenly, came this remarkable thing, this flood of humanity who now become the worst part of this story.

All of the customers got up from the floor, and bunches of them -- 10, maybe 15, maybe more -- commenced grabbing anything they could get their hands on, sneakers and clothing and such, and stuffing them into their own clothing and then bolting for the front door.

"The store was packed, and they were just rushing right out," an assistant manager said the other day, waving her hand across the store's deep expanse, where customers lined up to pay for items. "You got in their way, and they were ready to knock you down. It wasn't every single person, but it was a lot of them."

And so we come to the issue of the day: Not merely the city's criminal class, by whom we are all routinely held hostage, but those considered law-abiding because we don't know them well enough. Was this mass shoplifting merely an aberration, or is something else going on here?

"Human nature?" the owner of the store asked yesterday. "I don't know. The human nature of some human beings, I guess. You take advantage of a situation."

The owner requests that his name, and the name of his store, not appear in the newspaper. It will frighten potential customers, he says. He wonders if the street name, and perhaps the entire area of town, might be left out of the paper, too. There's already too much fear of crime, he says, and why add to it?

He has it backward: Too many alleged leaders of this city attempt to minimize the crime, hoping it will go away before everyone with options moves out of town, and thus they allow it to flourish.

A display of anger is in order. The police say this block of Greenmount Avenue is part of Northern District's Post No. 513, an area of about 15 square blocks that is covered full time by precisely one police officer on each shift and a foot officer where needed. "A very high-crime area," says Sgt. Buford Viars. "Of course, anywhere in that Greenmount Avenue area is going to have crime. Are there enough police? Well, you'd have to ask the commissioner about that. But, hell, everybody knows we need more police. I mean, if you're a criminal anywhere in this city, you're looking at pretty good odds."

This story, of course, goes beyond the professional criminals. It is about the thin veneer of civilization which occasionally washes off those not assumed to be predisposed to law-breaking.

"You never know what makes people tick," the store owner said yesterday. "Some people, they think they can take advantage of a situation, and so they do. Maybe it's up bringing, maybe it's environment. I don't know."

In many ways, this section of Greenmount Avenue is pretty nice: lots of friendly neighborhood foot traffic, an outdoor magazine stand here, a bookstore there, several Asian restaurants.

But we live in a time of predators. From the professional criminals, we've come to expect trouble. But the others become a new worry now, bit players in a drama, just waiting for their cue to jump in and add to the damage of the day.

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