A County commissioner in Tennessee wants the Knox County Sheriff’s officers who sparked a social media firestorm that cost a 15-year-old her job to explain what happened. The incident occurred at a McAlister’s Deli in Knoxville according to reporting from the Knoxville News Sentinel.
The girl, Aniya Thompson is the sister of Anthony Thompson Jr., a 17-year-old high school junior. He was killed by Knoxville Police Department officers inside a high school bathroom in April 2021, making national headlines. The family currently has a pending lawsuit against the City of Knoxville.
After her brother’s death, Aniya decided to try homeschooling and found a part-time job to keep herself busy and provide the socialization her mother says she needed to begin to heal.
What happened at McAlister’s Deli on Nov. 21
When the Knox County Sheriff’s officers entered the deli at about 8 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2022, Aniya told BWNC that she stepped aside from the counter because it was nearing the end of her shift and she asked her 16-year-old coworker to take over. In Facebook posts, Knox County Sheriff’s spokesperson Kimberly Glenn and the sheriff’s office said the girl refused to serve the officers because they worked in law enforcement. The post ignited a social media firestorm against the teen from adults and police advocates.
But a state of Tennessee separation notice dated Nov. 25 says a guest complaint led to the teen’s firing because she didn’t meet “performance standards” and because minors under 16 are ineligible to work for the restaurant.
Managers told her she’s welcome to reapply when she turns 16.
A letter from David Blackburn, CEO of Southern Rock Restaurants, which runs McAlister’s Deli on Schaad Road in Knoxville, told the girl’s mother the teen was polite and showed a willingness to learn from the incident.
Chanada Robinson said that her daughter has been bullied and harassed online since the Nov. 21 incident – a time when the family is trying to pick up the pieces.
“I’m proud of her for wanting to work and hold down a job at 15. There was never any issue upon her being hired about her age,” she said with her daughter nearby.
“This was her very first job. And we wanted her to get out of the house and get a break from home school after her brother’s death. We are just trying to live a normal life, and it’s been hard. How can we talk about mental health if adults are out here acting this way toward children?”
Blackburn confirmed the girl’s termination and said he couldn’t comment on the personnel issue.
“She violated our policies and would have been terminated anyway, because she is only 15,” he said. “She shouldn’t have been (hired). The manager missed that it was a policy issue,” he told Knox News.
McAlister’s claims it comes down to age
Aniya told Knox News the company knew she was 15 because she showed her birth certificate when she was hired and she discussed with managers the number of hours she could legally work.
The teen says she was never asked by McAlister’s what happened when the deputies walked up, which was that she asked a coworker to take over.
After the incident erupted, Robinson said her daughter was asked to come in early before her shift to give a statement, but then they received a call telling them they did not want to meet at the store and would prefer to have a conversation by phone.
Back and forth over the encounter
On the day of the exchange, Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kimberly Glenn posted a description on her personal Facebook page even though she was not there. It blew up, garnering more than 800 shares within hours.
In her post, Glenn said she had received a phone call from three officers who told her the McAlister’s Deli staff refused to serve them.
“They spoke to the manager on duty, who didn’t seem concerned the cashier refused to serve them,” Glenn wrote.
Glenn updated her post to state her husband had emailed the corporate office, and the manager called to apologize.
“What happened was wrong and not necessary,” Glenn wrote.
Dozens commented on the post, many of whom called for a boycott of the restaurant and the firing of staff. The post has since been deleted.
Later, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office shared a similar statement attributed to Sheriff Tom Spangler on its Facebook page, again saying a McAlister’s cashier refused to take the officers’ orders.
“We have immense empathy for law enforcement,” Blackburn, the CEO, said. “We’re just wanting to do the right thing. It’s unfortunate we have to rebuild our reputation.”
The teen, however, has a very different account that was corroborated by the coworker who tried to take the officers’ orders.
Black With No Chaser CEO and Civil Rights Attorney CJ Lawrence says that McAlister’s has chosen to side with the police and that their message is clear.
“Aniya is a child and lost her brother and while McAlister’s is attempting to lean on plausible deniability or human error in mistakingly overlooking her age when she was hired, how can we also not draw the conclusion that from their lackluster hiring process that they didn’t also fail to thoroughly investigate what truly happened before choosing to fire her.”
At the counter
16-year-old Aneesa Rose told Knox News she was the one who switched registers with her coworker.
Rose, who had worked for the restaurant for over a year, said the officers walked away toward the door and returned minutes later to ask if her coworker didn’t want to take their orders because they are police officers.
“I told them it has nothing to do with them. Then they asked to speak with the manager,” Rose said. “I tried to take their order.”
Rose said the entire encounter was calm but officers escalated it, adding they used a gruff tone during the entire interaction.
“It’s as if they felt they were owed something is how it came off to me,” she said.
She has since left the job in protest of her coworker’s treatment.
“I’m an honest person and I try to avoid conflict. What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong,” she said.
Commissioner calls for vote to subpoena officers
On Monday, the Knox County Commission in Tennesee will discuss the matter after Commissioner Dasha Lundy said the commission, as a legislative body, has the right to subpoena the deputies, Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler and Glenn, as well as their records and communications about that night.
Spangler answered an email from Lundy in Jan. stating that he nor his officers would answer questions at the meeting, prompting Lundy to utilize other measures to demand answers about what happened.
“I’m disgusted,” Lundy said. “I won’t let this go.”
“I need a two-thirds vote,” she said to fellow commissioners. “I know it gets very sensitive, I didn’t want to bring the commissioners to a vote … but I will have to.”
Tennessee headed in wrong direction with policing and legislation
Lawrence cited Tennessee policymakers and their atrocious bill proposals such as bringing back lynching, adding that the state is heading in the wrong direction in terms of legislation and policing.
“Black communities need to take notice of the way Aniya was treated based on an assumption of her refusal and anticipation that she be the one to serve them. The travesty lies in the police taking offense that she may have allowed someone else to take their order. But the one thing that we have the power to do is rally around this young lady and her family and to let McAlister’s and police know that our children’s lives are not to be played with or cut down. We can leverage our Black dollars not to support McAlister’s as swiftly as they dismissed her,” said Lawrence.
This story will be updated.
Angela Dennis covers issues at the intersection of race and equity through both contemporary and historical lenses. She can be reached at Angela@blackwithnochaser.com or Angela@knoxnews.com