Dispute builds over Georgia lawmaker’s confrontation at grocery store

State Rep. Erica Thomas, D - Austell, held a press conference Monday where she repeated that, during a confrontation over rules in a grocery store express lane, a man told her to “go back,” echoing divisive tweets that President Donald Trump aimed at four congresswomen of color telling them they should “go back” to where they came from. The man admits calling Thomas an expletive but denies saying he told her to “go back.” (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

ExploreUPDATE: Police say no charges will be filed in Georgia lawmaker’s Publix dispute

A confrontation at a grocery store between a black state legislator and a man she accused of demanding that she “go back” to where she came from has led to barbed attacks from partisan leaders, calls for her to resign and threats of litigation.

State Rep. Erica Thomas and her lawyer held a press conference Monday where she maintained that the white man, Eric Sparkes, used hateful language that echoed President Donald Trump's recent tweets — despite a TV interview where she appeared to backtrack. She also said she had the witnesses to prove it, though one who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said he didn't hear Sparkes use that phrase.

Meanwhile, Sparkes accused her Monday of trying to turn his crude remarks — he admitted to calling her an expletive for having too many items in a Publix express lane — into a “national case about race overnight.” He added that he’s exploring a defamation lawsuit against her.

And Cobb County police released an incident report on Monday detailing the dispute and noting that an officer has interviewed customers and collected video from Publix as evidence.

The run-in at the grocery store, followed by a bizarre confrontation before a bank of television cameras over the weekend, stoked an already tempestuous debate about race, ideology and etiquette that’s been fueled by a volatile political climate.

State politicians quickly drew battle lines. The Georgia GOP mocked Thomas for trying to raise campaign cash off the incident, and the Cobb GOP called for the second-term lawmaker to step down. The Democratic Party of Georgia responded with a “#WeStandWithErica” tweet.

But the incident reverberated beyond Georgia. It came days after Trump triggered criticism from across the spectrum for remarks that four liberal congresswomen should “go back” to their home countries — even though all were American citizens and all but one was born in the U.S.

Some liberals declared Thomas’ run-in at the grocery aisle a heartbreaking side effect of Trump’s rhetoric. And some conservatives cast her as a version of Jussie Smollett, the Chicago actor accused of making up a racist attack to advance his career.

‘Out of control’

It started Friday evening when Thomas, a vice chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus, posted a Facebook video accusing an unnamed man of accosting her for flouting the rule of 10 or fewer items in the express line at a Mableton Publix.

"This white man comes up to me and says, 'You lazy son of (expletive). You need to go back where you came from,'" she said in the video, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "Sir, you don't even know me. I'm not lazy. I'm nine months pregnant."

The video soon caught the attention of liberal activists who amplified her message that “racism and hate is getting out of control.” Soon, it had tallied millions of views and sparked a media frenzy of competing headlines and hashtags.

A day later, Thomas’ story came under scrutiny when she arrived at the Publix to speak with television reporters — and Sparkes arrived, too, eager to respond. He said he called her a “selfish little (expletive)” when he noticed she was skirting the express lane’s rules.

“I did say that. That’s all I said after that, and I walked out of Publix,” Sparkes said. “Her words stating on Twitter, and her video, stating I told her she needs to go back where she came from are untrue. I am Cuban.”

With the TV cameras rolling, Thomas repeatedly accused Sparkes of telling her to “go back” — and he denied using that language and said he was a Latino Democrat. In a subsequent interview with Channel 2 Action News, Thomas seemed to hedge her remarks.

“I don’t want to say he said, ‘Go back to your country,’ or ‘Go back to where you came from.’ But he was making those types of references is what I remember,” she told the station.

That brought a new round of responses less supportive of Thomas. Conservatives lit up social media with attacks on Thomas' character. Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said she should be "sent home to Austell for manufacturing a #HateHoax." And state Rep. David Clark called her a liar.

“Once you lie to the people you serve, you should no longer have a seat at the table,” said Clark, R-Suwanee. “Erica Thomas needs to resign, so that the sanctity of Georgia is not in question.”

‘She said, with evidence’

Thomas has tried to push back on the narrative. In a stuffy room in the state legislative office building, she opened a press conference by saying that Sparkes told her to “go back.”

“I want to make sure everyone knows I’m not backtracking on my statement or retracting anything I said,” said Thomas, who added that she was still distraught and embarrassed by the confrontation when she spoke to reporters over the weekend.

Her attorney, Gerald Griggs, said he’s asked Publix to release videotape that he said corroborates Thomas’ account. (The grocery chain has said it is cooperating with authorities and has not yet released a video.) Griggs also said he’s told witnesses to be prepared to testify.

“This is not a ‘He said, she said.’ This is a ‘She said, with evidence’ ” situation, Griggs said. “This should never have happened.”

The police report lists four witnesses, three of whom work at Publix. One of them, Derrick Tompkins, was asked by the AJC whether he heard Sparkes tell Thomas to “go back” to where she came from.

“I’m not going to say that wasn’t said, but I don’t remember hearing it,” said Tompkins, a 25-year-old cashier for the store. “I’m going to leave it at that.”

Thomas has the support of some prominent Democrats, including U.S. Senate candidate Teresa Tomlinson and several state House colleagues who stood behind her at Monday’s conference.

But other top Georgia Democrats, including former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms, have not commented on the dispute.

Sparkes is not sitting idly by. Apprised of Thomas’ comments, the Mableton resident said Monday that “she backtracked slightly and now is changing her story” and again denied that he said she should “go back” to where she came from.

“I am in the process of exploring with attorneys a defamation lawsuit against her,” he added.

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