What the TV trucks were doing was waiting to see what else might happen at that Center City Starbucks where, five days earlier, six police officers forcibly removed two African-American men in handcuffs.
The men were there waiting for a friend. They weren’t drinking coffee. They had asked to use the bathroom. They didn’t buy anything. And they wouldn’t do so, or leave, until the friend arrived. Hence, apparently, the reason to call the cops.
To which most of an astonished nation responded: “Really? Why?”
To African-Americans like my Starbucks friend, and me, the answer to both questions is a weary, sullen “Why not?” Why not, in an era where abusive policing has led to chronic violence — resulting too often in the wounding and killing of unarmed black men.
And yet, let’s consider the (relatively) good news here: The scrutiny — and, to a great degree, level of outrage — on the part of white people toward such incidents. Whites called Starbucks out on the arrest and are among those holding the corporation accountable for it.
Good news … but not necessarily news. If you remember “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s 2013 breakthrough feature film depicting the real-life shooting of Oscar Grant III at the eponymous BART station in 2009 by a white transit cop, much of the immediate anger came from white passengers who witnessed the incident. And in a just nation, should black people expect anything less?
To be sure, the dimensions of the Starbucks incident are, saying the least, far different from those that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement — that is, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2013 death of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman shot him dead because he thought the unarmed 17-year-old looked suspicious and was threatening.
Yet what happened at Starbucks and BLM overlap in what appears to be the disproportionate severity in how people of color are treated.
African-Americans, in whatever station of life, recognize this over-the-top exertion of force as a dreary day-to-day prospect. In a volatile atmosphere of race relations, what happened to those two men at Starbucks became emblematic of how they believe they are perceived, no matter what the specific details behind the arrest.
The arrest was captured on video and set off a mortifying cluster of events that included demonstrations in front of that same Starbucks, calls for a nationwide boycott of the chain and profuse apologies from the company’s chief executive Kevin Johnson.
There were also some head-scratching, head-spinning and handwringing issues to discuss: What, for instance, should be the Starbucks policy for handling customers who insist on using the bathroom without making purchases? What’s the procedure if they’re just waiting in the coffee house for someone and not planning to buy a latte or chai tea? Do you really have to call in a full detachment of police to escort unarmed people from the premises, whether they need to use the bathroom or not?
In any other time, such questions would be relatively frivolous in the context of life and death. Now, because of so much of what constitutes interaction between police and citizens of color, they are not.
Starbuck’s Johnson, who is white, flew across the country from corporate headquarters in Seattle Sunday night, hoping for a face-to-face meeting with the two men sometime this week, and that is a welcome step.
Racial politics remain less than ideal mainly because they insist on remaining “racial.” But diligence against such incidents from whites — like Johnson, like the two black mens’ defenders at Starbucks, and like white people everywhere horrified by this latest example of the lived reality black men face — is, in the long run, more important and more fruitful than mere “tolerance.”
This, just maybe, is what true solidarity looks like. And, just maybe, whatever happened at the Philadelphia Starbucks was necessary to shine more light on it.