The Ghetto Chopper T-shirt thing

Was the altered Price Chopper logo protected speech, as a trademark parody?

ghetto chopperThere’s a grocery chain headquartered in Schenectady, NY, near Albany, called Price Chopper, which serves upstate New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. It was founded in 1932 as Central Market, and will soon be segueing to a new name, Market 32, which I think is boring as heck.

At least one of the Price Chopper stores, the one on Delaware Avenue in Albany, has been dubbed the Ghetto Chopper for years.

While it serves parts of a black neighborhood, it also sells food to the more Greenwich Villagey Center Square section of town. Regardless, the term always irritated me; it bugged a lot of people, but others embraced it.

When a couple of artists, Dana Owens and Chip Fascian, designed a T-shirt emblazoned with the term “Ghetto Chopper”, with an image of a handgun – perhaps as a Photoshop spoof – it created a firestorm of controversy. Writer Amy Biancolli expressed her discomfort, for instance.

The strongest critic, though, was Ken Screven, retired reporter after over thirty years at WRGB-TV, Channel 6, who is now a Times Union blogger. He wrote of the shame of the Ghetto Chopper project and applauded when the Golub Corporation, owners of Price Chopper, filed a cease and desist order against the T-shirt maker. The comment sections on both these posts are lengthy and volatile, addressing issues of what art is, free speech, and hipster racism, among other things.

The arts and newsweekly Metroland wrote a summary of the events, some of which I thought was way off base.

What was most interesting to me in the debate, though, was whether the altered logo was protected speech, as a trademark parody. Intellectual property lawyer/rock drummer Paul Rapp notes:

Trademark infringement occurs only when there is a likelihood of confusion as to the source of a product. No confusion, no infringement. Did any of you think for a second that the Ghetto Chopper t-shirt was produced by Price Chopper? No? Well, OK then.

He goes on with more details, but his bottom line is that he thinks the shirt, had it been made, would have been legal. And I totally agree. If the T-shirt makers had had the resources to take on The Golub Corporation, they might well have won. I feel conflicted between what I find is the cringeworthy nature of the Ghetto Chopper moniker and my librarian leanings towards the open expression of ideas.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

5 thoughts on “The Ghetto Chopper T-shirt thing”

  1. I’ve heard “Ghetto Chopper” used to describe the Price Chopper on Delaware Avenue for the almost three decades that I have lived in my home, which is located a short walk from the store. Actually for longer than that. I’ve observed that no one in my neighborhood or in any neighborhood nearby uses that appellation, it is used exclusively by outsiders, mostly suburbanites and college students.

    I have come to consider it a deeply offensive slur on my neighborhood, a smirking example of childish anti-urbanism. If you want to wear a t-shirt that sneers at my community, then you can take your sweet butt back to your unsustainable heavily subsidized tick tacky suburb and stay there.

  2. At least since the 1960s, the only people who have used the word “ghetto” have been people who didn’t live in it.

  3. It’s always interesting to me how those who truly care about freedom of expression always worry about the suppression of any sort speech (symbolic or otherwise), whereas so many political activists—on both the left and the right, but especially the right—object only when they think their speech is being restricted, however mildly. Which is why both ends of the spectrum get so upset with the ACLU: They tend to defend all free speech.

    There’s another difference between people like you and those who don’t question the legitimacy of suppression of speech they don’t like: You do question it. Thanks for the reminder that questioning is important, even when it’s uncomfortable.

  4. There were many getto choppers, before most of them they were called Grand Unions, I def remember the 1st it Mechville, or Saratoga Springs, the one on Delaware Ave was always way more grand SO!!! It is a grocery store! Shop, Eat or Don’t

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