Local business and customer reconcile

OKEECHOBEE — Local health food store Nature’s Pantry and Okeechobee resident Justin Rhodes have reconciled after an initial misunderstanding spiraled into a massive public shaming campaign against the business on social media on June 29.

Around 11 a.m. on June 29, Mr. Rhodes entered Nature’s Pantry and started browsing their supplements. According to a police report filed by Okeechobee Police Department Officer Raul Marrero, after browsing for a bit Mr. Rhodes asked to use the store’s bathroom. Mr. Rhodes then told OPD Officer Marrero that the employee behind the counter replied that the bathroom was only for customers and “not for the homeless people around town.” According to the report, the employee also initially assumed Justin was either high or drunk because he slurred his speech and stumbled when he walked.

Unbeknownst to that employee, Mr. Rhodes had actually been recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Three years ago, a motorcycle accident left Mr. Rhodes in a coma. Upon waking, he had to relearn to walk and speak again.

After the comment about drugs, Justin pulled out his phone and began a livestream on Facebook to his 2,000 friends on the social media site. In the video Justin described what happened and spoke at length about how he felt disrespected by the business. Toward the end of the 22-minute video the owner of Nature’s Pantry, Rebecca Posey, can be seen approaching Justin and telling him to leave the store. Shortly after the livestream ended, OPD arrived after being initially called by the store’s employee.

OPD spoke to both parties involved and each apologized to the other.

But the livestream posted by Mr. Rhodes quickly racked up over 10,000 views and hundreds of shares, with many calling for a boycott of Nature’s Pantry.

Making matters worse was the employee who first spoke to Justin continued reacting flippantly to comments posted on the official Nature’s Pantry Facebook page by supporters of Mr. Rhodes. The employee, who turned out to be the owner’s husband, laughed at comments defending Justin and suggested Mr. Rhodes be given a chaperon when he was outside.

While her husband seemed to be stoking the fires of public anger over the incident, Rebecca Posey instead reached out privately to Justin to apologize for what had happened and for the actions of both herself and husband. Mr. Rhodes accepted the apology and took to Facebook once again on July 1 to update his friends and supporters on the situation.

“I’ve received many messages of love and support but one message in particular spoke volumes to my heart,” said Mr. Rhodes in the brief video. “And that was message was from the owner of Nature’s Pantry, Ms. Becky. It was a very detailed message and as I read every single word it made me think about the fact that I’m human and she’s human. We’re all human and we’ve all done things that we regret. I accept her apology.”

The employee who first spoke to Justin is no longer involved with Nature’s Pantry, as Ms. Posey says the incident accelerated the end of her marriage.

“My marriage was going to break anyway; this didn’t make anything better,” explained Ms. Posey. “I just reached out and sincerely apologized to Justin. It was truly a bad day. I wasn’t familiar with Justin and what he went though. But I am now. It was very much a misunderstanding. At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. I heard this same thing happening in the store for nearly 30 minutes and was already feeling sick so I just said to myself, ‘All right this is done, we’re done’.”

Almost everyone goes through a bad day or has done something in their life that they regret. But not many people have their lowest moment broadcast out to their local community to be memorialized for eternity.

In the age of social media, that experience is becoming more and more common.

In his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” author Jon Ronson chronicled multiple high-profile public shaming incidents in recent years and attempted to learn why they’re so prevalent in the age of social media.

“A life had been ruined. What was it for? Just some social media drama,” says Ronson’s book after a woman was fired following a off-color joke posted on social media. “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”

In the aftermath of the Justin’s livestream, the health foods store received dozens of negative reviews on their Google business page and Yelp, lambasting them for what Mr. Rhodes had experienced. The rating on the Nature’s Pantry Google business page dropped from five stars to two and a half stars in a matter of hours.

The intense and overwhelming negativity directed at Nature’s Pantry had the owner wondering if her time was over in Okeechobee. Ms. Posey had spent her whole life in this town but briefly considered making plans to leave for a few months.

Ms. Posey also says she held off on watching the video of the incident until very recently.

“I was terrified to watch the video,” explained Ms. Posey. “I wasn’t confident that my behavior was flattering at all.”

For his part, Justin says he forgives Ms. Posey for what happened.

“I’m good with Ms. Becky and I’m good with Nature’s Pantry,” said Mr. Rhodes. “I truly hope the people of this town that I love will find it in their hearts to forgive, too, like I did.”

“Now it’s all good, we are all on good terms,” said Ms. Posey of her feelings toward Justin. “We’ve communicated a couple times in the past few days. I think we will always be friendly and hopefully collaborate on some community things. I don’t wish this kind of experience on anyone. It was definitely a lesson on communication. Things can always be talked out civilly.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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