By all accounts, the two men did nothing to provoke their arrests, other than remain at a Starbucks after being asked to leave. It also isn’t clear why they were asked to leave. Starbucks of course isn’t obligated to provide space in its store for non-customers, but it isn’t as if this is a policy that the chain strictly enforces. The two men certainly seem to have been singled out because of their race.
Reaction to the story has been pretty universally condemnatory of both the Starbucks staff and the Philadelphia police officers who made the arrest. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross (who, given the subject matter, it’s worth noting is black) has been one of the few to publicly defend the officers. In a statement on Facebook Live, Ross said the police “did absolutely nothing wrong,” adding, “They did a service that they were called to do. And if you think about it logically, that if a business calls and they say that someone is here that I no longer wish to be in my business, [officers] now have a legal obligation to carry out their duties. And they did just that.”
But of course not everyone accused of trespassing gets arrested. Police officers have discretion in how to resolve disputes such as this. Here, it’s relatively ambiguous what does and does not constitute trespassing. Yes, the men were asked to leave. But they were asked to leave a public facility open to everyone else but them, and for reasons that smacked to them of bias. It isn’t as if they climbed a fence and ignored “No Trespassing” signs. At the end of the day, if two men can be arrested and detained for eight hours for refusing a barista’s order to leave, then there’s something wrong with the policy. The near-universal outrage over the incident is also a good indication that the policy needs to change.
After an initial milquetoast apology, Starbucks executives have been much more contrite. The company announced it would close more than 8,000 stores on May 29 for “racial-bias education. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said he was “heartbroken” over the arrests but put the blame more on Starbucks than on city police.
That this incident could generate so much outrage and national attention is encouraging. Too often when an incident like this happens, you see the usual breakdown along ideological lines — white conservatives back the police, while most people of color and left-leaning white people support those whom the police are accused of harassing, beating or shooting. This one seems to have inspired pan-partisan condemnation.
But before we get too self-congratulatory about our wokeness, imagine that these two black men came forward to say they had been wrongly arrested, but there was no video and no white people in the Starbucks corroborated their story. My guess is that a good percentage of white people would assume they had done something to provoke the cops. They were probably too loud. Maybe they were harassing other customers. Perhaps they tried to take something without paying. Much of white America just isn’t ready to believe that black people can get arrested, harassed by cops or beaten for doing little to nothing.
A couple of years ago, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a conservative Republican, took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to describe the harassment he and some of his staff had received from police simply for being black men who drove nice cars. Some white conservatives took notice. Tim Scott is no Al Sharpton; no one could accuse him of benefiting from racial grievance. But of course Scott can’t be the only black person telling the truth about bad interactions with cops.
It’s true that the problems with policing — and more broadly with our criminal-justice system — aren’t inflicted exclusively on black and Latino people. White people are sometimes victimized, too. But one thing I’ve noticed in covering policing issues for the past 10 years or so is that nearly every person of a color has a story about a bad interaction with police. They were stopped, then thoroughly and embarrassingly searched on the side of the road. A cop mistook something they were holding for a gun. They were wrongly arrested. They were roughed up. A traffic stop suddenly turned very scary. If it didn’t happen to them, it happened to a brother, a father or a close friend.
There’s a faction of white people who are legitimately concerned about some of these issues but who want to ignore the racial component of them. These white people will sometimes ask why no one was marching in the streets after the police shooting deaths of Daniel Shaver or Justine Damond, or legitimately ask why it’s considered bad form to say “All Lives Matter” instead of that “Black Lives Matter.” When I’ve interviewed the families and friends of white people killed by police, there can sometimes be an understandable feeling of isolation. Black Lives Matter is there for the black victims; who is marching for the white victims?
The difference, again, is that many white people tend to think that for a cop to shoot you, or beat you, or arrest you, you must have provoked them in some way. Don’t want police attention? Don’t commit crimes. Don’t hang with the wrong crowd or project an aura of violence and intimidation. Be polite and courteous when interacting with police. Do what you’re told, and you’ll be fine. At worst, the most egregious police shootings of white people may be tragic, but they’re rare. They’re anomalies. We can’t empathize with the person who was shot because we can’t imagine a scenario in which a cop might consider us potentially dangerous. And that’s because we just don’t do the sorts of things that cause cops to shoot people.
When many black or Latino or, in some parts of the country, Native American people read about a police shooting of someone like them, the reaction is often more “That could have been me. “There are no precautions to take. It isn’t about not hanging with the wrong crowd, or not talking back to cops, or not engaging in criminal behavior. The “sorts of things” they do that attract police attention are things such as being a U.S. senator driving a nice car, standing outside of a store, walking home after a long shift at a restaurant, trying to make a living by selling CDs, or waiting for a business associate at a Starbucks. It is simply to exist.
Sometimes the viral video doesn’t tell the whole story. Sometimes it tells us all we need to know. But we shouldn’t need a viral video and the word of white witnesses to understand that being black or brown often means negotiating an entirely different landscape when it comes to the police (as well as the white people who tend to call the police after seeing black people behave in a way that’s even the slightest bit abnormal).
Latent bias and racism are very old problems, and these videos show they can still have devastating effects. But video has also become a powerful tool for exposing bias. Technology can also fight bias, both by bringing incidents such as this one to the attention of millions, and by shattering the assumptions of those of us who don’t have to live with it.