A Philadelphia Starbucks became a flashpoint for white racial hostility last month when two black men were arrested for allegedly trespassing. The men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, real estate investors in their 20s, were waiting for a business associate when a Starbucks manager called local police and accused them of trespassing. The manager’s complaint hinged on the fact that the men were occupying the space without purchasing one of the various sugar-laden drinks on offer. Video footage shows the men being arrested without incident as white patrons—including their associate, look on and protest that the men are innocent.
After being held for several hours the men were released without charge and received a personal apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. The viral video of their arrest sparked protests at the location and panic at Starbucks HQ. In a shallow PR move, the coffee chain has announced plans to shutter roughly 8 thousand stores on May 29thto provide “Unconscious Bias training” to employees.
Philadelphia is roughly 43% black. However, Rittenhouse Square, the tony neighborhood where the incident occurred is blindingly white. It’s safe to assume that such a level of segregation serves as a velvet socioeconomic rope. Gently buffering those that don’t qualify for the leisure class. These white Philadelphians are free to move about their community without often experiencing the abrupt atmospheric shift wrought by the presence of a black body. What Starbucks, and thousands of untold encounters illustrate is that when we step into a space, we are not anonymous citizens. We are a curiosity, an energy, a dread.
I can almost imagine the increased heart rate and sharpened vision of the white manager as her mind raced through the reasons, all of them criminal, to explain why two young black men would deign to take Starbucks up on its offer to be neutral third-place. The comfort and relative safety of bland anonymity is rarely afforded black Americans. Our existence must be immediately justified in order to preempt the white fear that can quite literally lead to our deaths. One of the most insidious effects of white supremacy is the feeling that we must continuously carry a compelling affirmation of our humanity like a yellowed business card in our back pocket—worn from use. Our humanity and right to simply exist in this world is not a foregone conclusion. Black lives are always up for debate, and control, and oftentimes extermination.
Exactly 2 minutes after Mr. Nelson and Mr. Robinson dared to take up space in a Philly Starbucks, the police were on the scene to arrest them, remove them, and return the shop to a scene of upper class, placid repose.
Such an insignificant amount of time. Yet that was all it took for a racist’s hysteria to force a collision between two innocent black men and the criminal justice system.
A common thread of black life is being the target of harassment and violence at the hands of sociopathic officers dispatched by white people donning the carcinogenic mask of concerned citizens. Local police function as an extension of white supremacist domination. Officers are summoned to attenuate the fear of unbound black bodies in public spaces. The most mundane tableaus of daily life are contorted into scenes of chaos and violence when white Americans are free to make unilateral, wholly arbitrary decisions about what constitutes criminal behavior. That level of control over a stranger’s life must be intoxicating.
So it was that a petty, bigoted Starbucks manager called in the cavalry to erase the stain of black energy from her climate controlled petty kingdom.