The owner of the Sag Harbor Laundrette was arrested Friday after a verbal spat with a customer turned physical.
Nia Dawson of Bridgehampton, who said she was a longtime patron of the laundromat, said she believed William A. Tabert, the owner, had harassed her, culminating with him shoving her with his shoulder, knocking her off balance as she tried to enter, because she is Black. Although she said Mr. Tabert did not use racist language, she said he tried to make her use the rear door to retrieve her laundry. “Everyone in their right mind knows what it means to be told to go around to the back,” Ms. Dawson said.
Mr. Tabert, who was charged with harassment in the second degree, a violation, after Ms. Dawson called Sag Harbor Village Police, admitted on Tuesday that he was at fault.
“I was wrong. I was an ass. I admit it,” Mr. Tabert said. “I apologize, I apologize, I apologize.”
Mr. Tabert also said he wanted to extend an olive branch. “I consider everyone here a friend and I’m sorry if I offended this young lady,” he said. “I hope to rekindle a friendship with her and her family.”
On Monday, Ms. Dawson said she hoped some type of protest or boycott could be organized to drive home the seriousness of what Mr. Tarbet had done.
The story unfolded on a hot and steamy afternoon. Ms. Dawson said she just wanted to enjoy some BuddhaBerry frozen yogurt with her little brother, Eddie, on a bench outside the laundromat while her clothes were in the washing machine on Friday afternoon, when Mr. Tabert came out and asked if he could share the bench they were sitting on.
Ms. Dawson said her family had been hit hard by COVID-19 with several members getting ill over the past year, so she and her brother, who is 11 and too young to be vaccinated, were playing it safe.
But she said when she told Mr. Tabert that they would prefer not to share the bench because they were practicing social distancing, he grew angry and said, “Are you kidding me right now? This is my store and I can’t sit on my own bench?”
Ms. Dawson said she offered to move down to the next bench, but Mr. Tabert continued to yell as he went back inside his store.
At the same time, the alarm Ms. Dawson had set on her phone went off, notifying her laundry was ready to be transferred to the dryer. Fearing the situation would escalate, Ms. Dawson said she contacted her family on FaceTime, and her mother, sister and aunt joined the call. She recounted the incident, she said, and asked them to stay on the call in case things grew heated.
When Ms. Dawson reentered the laundry, she said her brother followed behind and hit the record button on his own phone. Ms. Dawson said Mr. Tabert was waiting for her, blocking her from entering the store. She said he told her, “You need to go around back. Everyone here is social distancing.”
When she tried to get around him one more time, she said he shoved her with his shoulder, knocking her off balance.
Mr. Tabert said he did not shove her on purpose, but merely bumped into her. While he admitted he sent her around to the back of the store, he insisted there was no racist intent in his demand. “Why would I have wanted to sit down next to her if I was a racist?” he said.
But Ms. Dawson said Mr. Tabert’s order to use the back door made her think of the stories her grandfather had told her and “the generational trauma” caused by racism in America. When she was finally able to retrieve her laundry, she said Mr. Tabert continued to harass her, so she called Sag Harbor Village Police.
“Before they even arrested him, the cops asked if he was drunk or there was something wrong with him,” she said. “If he was someone of color, there would have been no time for questions. He would be cuffed.” She added that Mr. Tabert stared her down, directed profanities at her, and lunged at her even as he was being detained.
Ms. Dawson said she was disappointed that Mr. Tabert, who was ordered to appear in Sag Harbor Village Justice Court on Tuesday, September 7, was only charged with a violation, calling it a slap on the wrist, and saying he had assaulted her.
But Lieutenant Robert Drake of the Village Police department said a shove did not rise to the level of being considered an assault. “We are not looking to make more of it than it is,” he said.
For her part, Ms. Dawson said she had no plans to return to the laundromat. “It’s not that I can’t go back there,” she said. “I won’t go back there.”