An incident that took place at a Starbucks in Philadelphia on Thursday, April 12th sparked protests as two black men were arrested for “loitering.” The two men were waiting in the store for their friend who was going to have a meeting with them about real estate investments. One of the men asked to use the bathroom and the employee said the bathroom is for customers only. It isn’t exactly clear what happened in the store but we do know that an employee called the cops on the men for not ordering.
There are a lot of issue with this situation especially considering my own personal experiences as a white person. People meet at coffee shops all the time for business or dates or hanging out and Starbucks is no stranger to that environment. I, as a white person, have gone to a lot of businesses to just be somewhere and not eat their food. I’ve bought tacos at 711 and ate them in the back of a Panda Express. I’ve gone to Wendy’s and brought my food to the McDonald’s next door because the place look nicer and I’ve never been kicked out. People do this all the time. And as someone who works part-time in the food industry, it’s something you deal with because it doesn’t matter. Telling someone to leave if they honestly aren’t causing any real trouble isn’t worth the time and effort.
Another big issue with this scenario is how the call immediately ended with arrest. The clip that went viral shows police officers arresting the two men while their friend is trying to explain the situation. Again, we don’t quite know how much time had occurred between the call, the police showing up and the friend showing up, we can estimate that the entire scenario happened in a fifteen minute time window since they were meeting up with someone. That is still not a lot of time spent figuring out the situation which means the police didn’t take time to think whether or not arresting them was really necessary.
The thing is, a police call does not require arrest. I know this first hand from having to call the cops on a person myself. For context, I was dealing with a drunk person in my home who had been acting aggressively towards me and the call was a last resort. An important thing to note is that the drunk person was white. When the cops came, they questioned us individually about the situation and reasoned with him as to why he needs to calm down. They didn’t immediately arrest him even though he was an aggressor. They didn’t threaten him even though he was being drunk and condescending. They just went on with their night.
If we compare these two scenarios, mine being a little bit more extreme because I had been dealing with an aggressive drunk person, compared to two people who were allegedly loitering in Starbucks, we can see that an arrest was severe. Nothing violent happened to them during the arrest because the two held a calm demeanor, even though they knew they did nothing wrong. However, being arrested is a terrifying and traumatic experience for anyone, but especially if you are a person of color.
To me, it’s very obvious that the call was unnecessary, though for some reason other people are reluctant to agree. But this situation is not new. White people tend to view police differently than black people do. We tend to view them as a solution to the problem rather than the reason for all of the problems. A white women in the suburbs doesn’t see an issue with calling the cops on the black person walking by her house. The white boy doesn’t see the problem on calling the cops on a black person getting in a fight at a party. White people just don’t see the harm in getting the cops involved in a situation like people of color do because we’ve had the police on our sides. Even in our most messed up situations where we did need to call the cops, we don’t realize how much it could have escalated if we were people of color or if people of color were involved. But that’s something we need to consider especially if the situation involved a non-violent crime like loitering where police force isn’t necessary, where no ones lives are actually in danger.
A lot of people are saying that the Starbucks employee wasn’t racially profiling, but they were. They absolutely were. Starbucks is very much a white store. Sure there are customers of color, but it appeals to the basic white suburban community. They are very specific to the types of customers they cater to and maybe they aren’t as out about it as maybe some sports bar in the middle of Alabama, there’s still that subtle racism that I wouldn’t notice since it’s not something I have to think about as a white individual.
If you work part-time in food service or retail, you profile your customers. When a white women with highlights comes into your store, you wonder how long it'll take for her to ask for your manager. When a person of color, specifically a black man, comes into your store, automatically you profile him. You look at his clothes and you pay attention to what kind of phone he has as if that says something about whether or not he lives somewhere. You look at your tip jar and you wonder if he’ll notice if you move it away from him in case he tries to steal from it. Maybe you’re not even having these thought consciously, maybe they’re just quick passing thoughts, but what you’re brain is doing is assessing danger that you think is there because society taught you it’s there. It’s screwed up, but we do it and we need to be more aware of it.
A call for boycott of Starbucks stores has been made on twitter. The Starbucks executive has issued an apology to the two that were arrested. Starbucks is closing U.S. stores on May 29th to have racial bias training.