HARLEM — Neighborhood shops are making it clear that customers wearing hooded sweatshirts or masks are not welcome.
"DO NOT ENTER WITH HOODIE OR MASK" read signs posted on three businesses along Frederick Douglass Boulevard, between 126th and 129th streets, warning "IF SO YOU ARE NOW TRESPASSING."
While businesses see them as a way to stop shoplifting, some residents say the signs are offensive.
“I’m tired of people of color being viewed as criminals for wearing hoodies,” said Andrew Padilla, who noticed signs around 160th Street and Amsterdam in Washington Heights. “If wearing a hoodie makes you a criminal I should’ve been locked up years ago.”
The mastermind behind the signs is Joe Stark, a Philadelphia man who said he is in the process of launching his own security company. He said the $10 signs are meant to be a form of crime prevention, not discrimination.
“We’re trying to put robbers and shoplifters on notice,” he said. “When you get a guy walking into a store and he has a hood up, a mask up, it can be a scary thing.”
Stark has been approaching bodegas, restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He estimated that he's sold a couple thousand of the signs.
Stark does not believe the signs are racially charged because criminals “can be black, white, brown, yellow, blue or green.”
“The only complaint you might have is from the little thugs selling drugs in the corner,” he said.
The signs have come under scrutiny from some customers in Harlem.
"No hoodie is extreme but no mask is good," said Ali Haaj, a manager at Kings Deli. "Everybody complains about it."
Despite the complaints, managers from both stores said the sign does more good than harm.
“It helps us know who is in the store,” said Jose Abreu, of Bravo Supermarket, where they have a shoplifting problem. “When people steal we check them on the camera so that next time they come in we know who they are.”
But the signs send out the wrong message, especially in locally owned stores, said Harlem resident Tyquan Haskins.
“It makes me feel like they are targeting me,” Haskins, who was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, said. “Why are you targeting? I’ve been spending money here for five years, don’t you know me?”
None of the six businesses that have the signs have charged hoodie-wearing customers with trespassing, staff said, and it is unlikely they could even if they wanted to, said local criminal attorney Charles Ross.
“It boils down to whether this is a lawful order,” he said. “Can they make it unlawful [to enter] by saying that by entering with a hoodie or a mask you are trespassing? My sense is that it would not hold up in court.”
Stark said he consulted his wife, who is an attorney, while making the signs. Wearing a hoodie into a store would become trespassing if an employee asks the person to remove the hood or leave and that person refuses, he said.
He is considering adding the word “please” to the sign.