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Starbucks, Policing, Jim Crow, and Being Annoyed #AF

This is Whiskey Congress' Podcast. Two Men. Two Races. Two Opinions and occasional guests, fueled by wit and whiskey.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Starbucks, but to be fair, I’m not a big fan of the premium coffee scene. I’m not a fan of coffee to begin with, but as I slip further into adulthood I recognize the bean as a necessary evil. The premium coffee scene has always rubbed me the wrong way, the arrogance, the cliquishness, the language of coffee, it all bothered me. Every Starbucks and high end cafe has the same group of people in it. Guys and girls in in horn rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, scarves in the summer, strong opinions on neo-feminism, and all probably living in gentrified neighborhoods while they lecture people on civil rights and equality. Racists, not quite, but there’s a vibe that makes a black gentleman like myself keep his radar up. Don’t forget the conservative suit wearing types who pass judgment on the hipsters while spewing their occupational jargon just loud enough so everyone knows they’re an important piece of the corporate team. Please don’t get me started on the girls in yoga pants walking their small dogs while gorilla glued to their iPhones keeping us all up to date on their drama and need for a girl’s night with wine and pizza. Yeah I’m a bitter judgmental, jerk, but I own it.

Given my clear disdain for the clientele you typically stumble upon in these places I fell into the Starbucks trap because of convenience. Besides the availability of a Starbucks on every corner they have an app. The app is wonderful, the app is key, the app is everything. I make my order via the app, I pay ahead of time, I wait wherever I place the order and time it up so all I have to do is walk in, grab my flat white with soy, and walk out. I don’t have to talk any jargon, I don’t have to spend extended periods of time with the regulars, nope I’m in and out in less than 15 seconds every time, and bam, I have my caffeine pick me up and everyone is better for the transaction.

I’ve been thrilled with my limited yet efficient relationship with Starbucks until this week. By now you’ve heard about the two black men arrested in a Starbucks store in Philadelphia. I read about the story on Twitter, then I saw the video, then I waited for Starbucks’ response, then the Philadelphia police response, then wanted to see the commentary from the masses. Everything went as expected, everyone played their role, said what I expected them to say, had the right amount of outrage, or immediately ran to the defense of Starbucks and or the Police, and the responses were divided right down political, party, progressive, conservative lines. Literally there were no surprises.

While I’m disgusted at what happened to the two men arrested, I’m not surprised. Starbucks as an organization has tried to embrace diversity, tried to fight for equality, they’ve gone as far as to literally try to “start a conversation” about race in their stores (that did not go well). The reality is, the CEO sitting in the high castle can espouse all these wonderful ideas, but he has no real idea who is working for him in any of the thousands of stores across the country. The reality is most racists don’t come out and tell you they’re racists when you hire them. So in terms of the racist employee, Starbucks I’ll give you a pass, because you can’t control your employees in situations like this and last I saw the person that made the call is no longer with Starbucks.

The Police in this situation made a decision to “do their job” and frankly they made the wrong decision. I believe in discretion, I believe in common sense, I also believe in communication. I believe in being able to read a room and determine if an actual crime is being committed or if someone is being petty. Police make decisions to ignore minor crimes, and bypass arrests everyday in every jurisdiction across the nation. So what happened here, why the six officers, why the handcuffs, why did the men spend eight (8) hours detained for nothing? The reality is, the police were in a no win situation. They were called because of trespassing, they asked the men to leave and the men said no, because the property “owner” (i’m well aware the barista was not the owner, but he was in effect an agent of the owner) asked them to be removed, once the men chose not to leave of their own free will, what choice did the police have? They actually could have communicated a little better with the two men, determined what the situation was and maybe we have a better result. Maybe instead of coming in with six officers, maybe they come in with two, have a conversation, assess the situation and go from there. Here’s a crazy thought, offer to buy the guys a coffee or bottle or water while they wait and just solve the problem and show a little good will and save yourself paper work… Just an idea.

I think my biggest beef is the connection between common business policy and a common law in all jurisdictions. The relationship between private property, loitering, trespassing, and existing in a public space. Loitering, jay walking, vagrancy, were the type of laws during the Jim Crow era that were used commonly to arrest blacks and imprison them, where by the way slavery was still legal, see the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, specifically the line that states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crimewhereof the party shall have been duly convicted…”, and systematically remove black people from free society. Loitering and trespassing in places like Starbucks happen everyday.

People show up there for meetings, interviews, study sessions and maybe they don’t buy anything for an hour, or maybe they buy nothing at all. How many times have you seen someone walk in with their own coffee thermos already filled, a snack from home, bust out their laptop and get to work? Probably more than once, and how many times was that person asked to leave, then had the police called on them, and were then arrested? This is where the conservatives go nuts, because they’re screaming “comply comply comply”. And it’s easy to fall into that line of thought, except for why is that we (people of color, yes I’m black) have to comply yet our white counter parts don’t get questioned, and if they do, they don’t get the police called on them, they don’t get arrested, and they don’t get killed for not leaving a space? We’ll comply when everybody has to comply, but until then, if you’re only screaming comply at us, because that explains away your racism at worst or bad decision making at best, sorry try again, we’re going to keep making you uncomfortable until you figure it out.

We can be mad at Starbucks, we can curse the police, but in reality this is a much broader problem than Starbucks and Philly police deciding that six on two at a a Starbucks was tactically practical. You have a system that has lingering ties to its ugly Jim Crow and Black Codes that were designed to be unfair and crippling to a specific group of people. Because we can’t break those ties, the impact of the intent can still be seen today, in this event. When you have store policies that are designed to allow for store owners to remove patron’s they don’t want in their stores and police prioritize protecting property and property owners via loitering, trespassing, and vagrancy laws, you have a cocktail for exactly what we saw this week at Starbucks.

The real question is why are we still shopping at these places that don’t want us there? And that’s a legitimate question that I don’t have the answer to, because it’s complicated. On the one hand the simple answer is just don’t shop at the places, shop black only, similar to the Jews, build our own wealth and find equality through the dollar. That would be ideal, but we’re not there, we’re not close. So we continue to shop at these places that don’t want us, and we follow all the rules and hope someone doesn’t get too nervous and call the police. OR do we do some combination of the two? We shop at black owned stores when we can, when it makes sense, when it’s available, and when we shop at stores owned by other groups, we’re mindful of how they treat people of color. We don’t necessarily walk away from all white owned coffee shops, but since Starbucks doesn’t want us, then we go to Caribou, or Dunkin Donuts, or just switch to sugar free Redbull. Earlier I said I was giving Starbucks a pass on this, and to a degree I am personally, but they still need to pay a price. People of color cannot let things like what happened to these two men go unchecked. If we don’t stand for something we can fall for anything (Malcolm X) and if we start complying to make white people comfortable we’ll find ourselves right back in the chains we fought for 200 plus years to get out of.

Will I go protest at a Starbucks and yell at people entering and exiting the store? No. Will I be annoyed but recognize we have to make different levels of sacrifice for our culture if we want to see things get better? Yes, which means, I’ve deleted my Starbucks App. I had $12.56 left on it with a free beverage and I deleted it. Not just a ceremonial delete, I went in and scrubbed my account of info and deleted it (harder than I thought) so I can’t just download it again and log back in. I can’t continue to spend money at a place that treats people who look like me the way those men were treated. The goal is simple, convince other establishments not to treat us that way. The goal is to make Starbucks feel it financially, and make racism something that becomes cost prohibitive. Contrary to popular belief, black people and other people of color spend trillions of dollars every year. Do businesses want to really find out what the loss of the black dollar does to their bottom line? Most don’t, boycotting Starbucks reminds them of that. You don’t want to play nice because you’re a decent human being, fine, do it because you don’t want to see the bottom line kicked in the balls. In the mean time I have to find a new way to caffeinate myself to get through my adulting years.

I'm not sure how I feel about boycotts, although you could argue that it certainly worked out well in Montgomery in 1956! Maybe a public transport system is a better use of a boycott than a retail coffee shop. I tend to think along the lines that in a free market economy, people should just stop supporting companies that go against their interests as a matter of course. No formal boycott is necessary, just do it the personal way as you have.I personally rarely go to Starbucks because the coffee is too damned expensive.

Almost wrote a response so damn long it should've been another blog post. To summarize it though, Thanks for reading, I agree and the only way for marginalized groups to shift the pendulum in their favor is to start to work together more behind the scenes instead of making a lot of noise in front of the camera and on the airwaves with no plan, follow up, or direction.

The premise of not buying anything while just hanging out in there isn't even enough justification to have them arrested on which charges? Were they disturbing anyone?

That's a big part of the issue. Legally, it's loitering. The store is private property and use of their property is conditioned on purchasing something. Now it gets tricky b/c there are countless examples of people using a Starbucks for a study spot, or meeting place without a purchase being made and no issues arise. And what if i walk in a store to browse, possibly buy something but they don't have my size and I use the bathroom? Am I loitering? It's a very subjective law to say the least and again there in lies the problem. If Starbucks employees and the police are using a law to subjectively remove certain people but not others, now we have civil rights issues.

Hahaha liked that introduction. Judgmental and owning it. #teamwhiskey!

I ams what I ams... I like that hashtag, I will have to borrow it #teamwhiskey!