Starbucks Has a Racism Problem

Photo by bfishadow | CC BY 2.0

At a time when we have over a millions young high school and college students march in the streets demanding a ban on assault-style semi-automatic rifles, and an end to mass shootings, as well as continued protests over police shootings of unarmed and all too often black or latino young people, it might seem trivial to see a wave of national outrage over an incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks shop involving two black men who were arrested by police for refusing a manager’s order to leave because they weren’t buying anything.

But when you look at the story closer it becomes clear that, as horrible as the Starbucks manager at this one store, and Starbuck corporate management, have been shown to be, this ugly incident really is also about the more serious issue of the increasingly militarized and authoritarian behavior of our nation’s police — a problem which we as a society have come to accept as normal.

Consider for a moment what transpired: Two 23-year-old black men, Rashon Nelson and Dante Robinson, casually but well-dressed, entered a Starbucks last week in a toney mostly white residential section of central Philadelphia at Spruce and 18th Street and sat down to wait for a white property developer who was going to discuss a potential real estate deal with them. One of the men, Nelson, needed to use the restroom, which required a key or an access code as many urban coffee shops do. He was denied access by the store manager, allegedly because they hadn’t purchased anything yet. The manager then went over to the two seated men and told them they had to leave, according to Nelson. Offended because, of course, many customers — at least white ones — routinely use Starbucks restrooms without buying something first, they went back to their seats to wait for the person coming to meet them (at which time certainly at least one member of the trio, and no doubt all three, would have bought drinks or food).

The manager then took things further, dialing 911 and calling for the police to come and evict the two. It was an outrageous act, and would have been even if she had waited until the men had been sitting for some time without buying anything. After all, Starbucks patrons, at least white ones, routinely go into Starbucks, sit for long periods of time talking, reading or using electronic equipment, and using the restrooms, and then leave. Reportedly a local white jogger actually trotted in and used the restroom at this particular Starbucks as this incident was developing, without anyone complaining or stoppng him. Ireports myself, a white freelance writer who works at home all day, often take a break and visit my local Starbucks to work for a while with my phone and computer, just to have some human contact. I may meet a friend from the neighborhood, or just hear other conversation while I work. Often I’ll buy a coffee, but not necessarily if I’m already over-caffeinated. Nobody bothers me, or any others I see just sitting and reading a paper or talking with a friend, again often at an empty table devoid of coffee product. But admittedly as I think of it, most of those sitting around staring into computers or smartphones or reading are white or Asian, not black.

After the manager called 911 and reported that two men were refusing to leave her store, Philly’s Finest raced to the scene, apparently in force with between six and eight officers converging on the location by car and bike. Most of those who showed up were white, including a supervisor whose presence indicated the cops were expecting trouble.

News reports say the police “politely” asked the two men to leave three times. According to police accounts the officers said the two men responded “defiantly” by refusing to leave. For their part, the two men say the police just came in and told them they had to leave, not making any effort to determine what the issue was. When the men questioned that order, they were then arrested, cuffed, and, without being even read their Miranda rights, were taken to the station where they were held for 8 hours, until 1:30 am when they were released because the city’s progressive new District Attorney, Larry Krasner, learning of the case, said there was no evidence they’d committed a crime. According to Lauren Wimmer, a pro-bono attorney for the as yet unidentified two men arrested, police had been considering a charge of “defiant trespass” against them.

The “defiant” part means that the accused were challenging the police officer’s right to remove them, instead of passively responding to an order to leave the premises. The addition of the term “defiant” to their “trespass” charge could have made their “crime” carry a penalty of anywhere from 90 days in jail and a $300 fine to up to five years in jail. These were not, in other words, minor arrests by the time the police decided to take the two men in.

Significantly, although other patrons stated, and an examination of several videos taken by them of the incident show that the two arrested men at no time reacted angrily, threateningly or even loudly to police confronting them, the city’s Police Commissioner Richard Ross, in a Facebook video statement released the same day by the department, said “These officers did absolutely nothing wrong…They were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen, and instead they got the opposite back.”

What the chief of police in this city of one million people of many races and classes was making clear was that in his view it doesn’t matter what you’’re doing, or whether or not police are making a mistake in trying to make you to stop doing it, or in assuming you are guilty of something when you are not, talking back to officers and refusing what one considers to be an unlawful order — in this case to leave the Starbucks shop — constitutes being defiant, impolite and, ultimately is grounds for your arrest, and for the leveling of the maximum charge arresting officers can come up with. It’s also saying that if you resist, the police will be justified in taking action that could hurt you: twisting your arms brutally behind your back, holding you in ways that could choke you or break your neck, throwing you face down on the concrete, grinding their knees into your back, punching you, tasing you or ultimately, if they “feel threatened,” shooting you to death. Fortunately, Nelson and Robinson, because they were, as they later said, “scared to death,” remained passive as they were cuffed and taken away, and they were not injured.

Almost a week later, in an “Oops” moment, that same Chief Ross, learning what most Starbucks customers have long known — that Starbucks actually encourages patrons — at least white ones — to meet in its coffee shops and to consider their cafes as a kind of social gathering place where it’s not necessary to immediately buy a product in order to sit and talk, or to do work on a computer, interview for a job or school application, or just chill out — exactly what the two men were telling the arresting officers, in calm if insistent voices, that they were in fact doing. On learning that, and reviewing videos of his officers’ behavior in arresting the two men, the chief backed off and belatedly apologized for the arrests.

There is now a growing boycott of Starbucks, which is a good and appropriate response. The company deserves to be called out because their company does appear to be operating with a double standard. In the suburbs, Starbucks restrooms are not even locked and of course anyone can walk in and one. But in the city, they tend to require either the entering of a code on a touch pad lock, or obtaining a key from the counter, which suggests baristas are using some judgement based upon appearance as to who should be allowed to use the facilities and who shouldn’t be.

But the real protest should be against the police for arresting people for merely standing up for their rights. It should not be illegal to do that.

Cops clearly need to be able to prevent crime and capture criminals, but the problem is that our politicians have over recent decades created so many new crimes and put so many laws on the books relating to those new crimes at the federal, state and local level, that police can now arrest anyone for virtually anything. Cops are also being trained to always maintain their control and authority in every situation, instead of behaving as public servants and trying to de-escalate disputes. As John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute says, most people these days are committing potentially arrestable offenses every day without even being aware of it. It doesn’t make us any safer, but the existence of all these new crimes on the books gives police a license to arrest virtually anyone they want anytime, and if they are wrong in doing so, to avoid facing any kind of sanction for making those arrests.

Look at the cops in this Philadelphia Starbucks incident case. The chief was quick to say that this outrage involved no police impropriety. The police did nothing wrong, Chief Ross said. And it will be surprising if any of those officers involved are punished or even sanctioned administratively for dragging two innocent young men waiting for a business meeting off to the clink for eight long and frightening hours.

The crime in this case was not the allegedly “defiant” behavior of the two men who were arrested for doing nothing wrong. It was the arresting of those men by uniformed enforcers working for the government who automatically sided with the corporate person claiming to have been harmed by those two men’s behavior.

The police officers’ behavior in this case was all the more inexcuseable because when Andrew Yaffee, the real estate developer, a white guy whom the two men had said they were waiting for, finally arrived at the scene, proving that they had been truthful in saying they were waiting for a business meeting, the cops, instead of acknowledging their error, continued cuffing the men and hauling they off, even as the developer was angrily demanding to know what the men he was meeting had done and why they were being busted.

Asked by an arresting officer if he was “with these two gentlemen,” Yaffee responded that he was, calling their arrest “ridiculous.” Asking why the cops had even been called, he said, “Was it because there are two black guys sitting here meeting me?”

At that point, what the police should have done is apologized, but that is not something police in America do these days. In America today, police are trained to demand respect, and to punish those who don’t show what they consider to be that respect. And by then the arrests were all about the alleged “defiance,” not the underlying “crime,” which clearly never existed in the first place.

It’s lucky that Nelson and Robinson stayed really calm and didn’t resist having their arms pulled behind them and bound up in plastic straps. The situation could easily have turned violent with police using their tasers or worse. For that matter, even though he is white, Yaffee is lucky he wasn’t cuffed on the spot and arrested too, for challenging the police. But he clearly benefited from “white privilege” in this case.

Think of poor Eric Garner, the black man stopped on a Brooklyn Street for selling “loosie” cigarettes who was put in a choke hold by a thuggish cop, and who died on the street of asphyxiation for his tax violation.

The stories are sadly legion of people — mostly people of color — being killed by police for in the course of making arrests on really minor charges like the one made at Starbucks. Usually it’s because the victim has objected to the arrest, and all to often they are absolutely correct to be objecting. In Garner’s case, for instance, the offense called not for an arrest but the issuance of a citation — like a parking ticket — for selling cigarettes without a license. But the police chose to make an arrest because Garner was objecting to being ticketed.

I’ve had my own experiences with this kind of authoritarian behavior by thuggish cops. The most recent was a couple of years ago when I was hitchhiking in my own neighborhood — something I do occasionally basically as a way of testing out the current public zeitgeist. While I waited, standing safely to the side of a secondary road, next to the entrance to a bank parking lot on a Sunday when the bank was closed, a cop in a black SUV pulled up. He was sternly shaking his head. I asked him what the problem was and he said, “Hitchhiking is illegal.”

I knew it wasn’t so I said, “Where’s it illegal? In town, in the county, in the state?”

He replied “Everywhere! You have to stop doing it.”

I said, “That’s not correct. It is not illegal to hitchhike in Pennsylvania. Only on limited access highways and entrance ramps. It’s not illegal on secondary roads.”

I was correct, but this cop didn’t want to be corrected. He said, “Don’t argue with me or I’ll take you in and lock you up!”

I said, “Lock me up? For something that’s just a citation like a parking ticket?”

He said, “Don’t push me.”

So I threw up my hands and said, “All right, I’ll stop and walk home, but I’m looking up the law because I know you’re wrong.”

I called up the desk of this cop’s department, which was in the town adjacent to my own, and asked about the law. The desk sergeant agreed with me that it was legal to hitch on secondary roads. I told him about his officer’s threat to arrest me, and he said, “Oh he was just talking tough.” I said, “Well it sounded like a real threat to me.”

Later, I called the chief of my own town police department, who turned out to have been an avid hitchhiker in his youth. He also told me hitchhiking was legal in Pennsylvania and emailed me a copy of the law. I went back out to the street and tried hitching again in the same spot, armed with a copy of the law, hoping the same cop would return and challenge me. My plan was to sue the officer and his department if he arrested me, knowing he was in the wrong. He never showed up.

Later I told defense attorney friend about my plan, and he said, “Dave, don’t do that. You could get hurt!”

That’s where we are today. We have to be prepared for police to injure us for doing things that are totally legal, whether it’s selling loose cigarets on a sidewalk, sitting quietly in a Starbucks, or protesting in a public square against an illegal war.

The only way to stop this police-state behavior by our police is to resist it on every occasion, to sue cities for false arrest when it happens, and to demand action from politicians who seem to think that the way to win elections is to keep adding more crimes to the nation’s already bulging criminal codebooks.

CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will be released in theaters this coming summer. Lindorff has finished a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published this Fall by Prometheus Press.