As most everyone knows now, an ugly incident took place in a Starbucks in Philadelphia.
A Starbucks employee called 911 to complain that two men were in the store refusing to make a purchase. Police were dispatched, arrested the men, and took them to the police station.
The men were black, and some immediately called the arrest a racist act, but things seem to be more complicated than that.
Starbucks is a private business, and at least some stores have a policy that you can’t use the bathroom unless you buy something. The two men arrested claimed they were waiting on a friend. The store employee felt that the men were loitering. The Starbucks in the 1800 block of Spruce is in a fairly gentrified area of Philadelphia, according to reports, and some have ventured that the act may have been engendered by perceived wealth disparity with neighborhood residents. Not every black person thinks that this was a case of racism.
Since the incident the CEO of Starbucks has apologized. The employee is no longer working at the store, but we don’t know whether that employee was fired or simply transferred.
My experience with Starbucks began in the early 1990s in Seattle.
Looking more mainstream than most of the Ave. residents in the early 1990s.
Curt Cobain had just died, and The Last Exit on Brooklyn (a ‘60s coffee house seminal in starting the coffee culture in Seattle) had closed. The “Ave” in the University of Washington District was a hangout for every sort of “alternative” person imaginable. There were tattoos, piercings, hair dyed Manic Panic colors, and there was a coffee stand on almost every corner with a barista making coffee for the rain-soaked and chilled residents of the city.
Residents of the Ave slept on the street in some cases and used the coffee shop restrooms. I can understand how Starbucks’ policy of requesting a purchase before use of the facilities may have started.
I remember meeting a couple on the street near the University of Washington campus whose faces I can still see vividly. He had a homemade tattoo of a spider on the end of his nose with a spider web covering his face. He looked angry, was older than she, and his spider looked like a prison tattoo.
The girl, by contrast, was young, had piercings, one half of her head was shaved with a multicolor tattoo all within her hairline, and on the other side of her head her hair was spiked and dyed green.
He glared at me as they walked by. She was staring at the ground.
While they were extreme, it was not by much. Starbucks was already rising to the level of being successful enough to go public. The company had a ready supply of “hippie kids” there and as Starbucks spread the stores seemed to prefer to hire alternative kids. Because there were very few minority residents in Seattle then, those alternative kids were white.
In recent years, though, things have changed. We have a Starbucks here, but it is in an Engle’s grocery, and the employees that make your coffee concoction look just like everyone else in this area, white and working class, and that’s what I’ve noticed around the South. Unless the Starbucks is in a college town there are no hippie kids behind the counter. In areas where there are significant numbers of black or Hispanic residents that is reflected in the employee mix.
What bothers me most about this incident, I think, is that the confrontation at the Starbucks escalated to the point that the police were called and the two men were arrested. Things have changed so much in America.
When I was a college student hitchhiking around the Northwest I got stuck in Pocatello, Idaho. I spent the day moving through town with my thumb out and finally around dusk I went into a 24 hour diner, threw my duffel bag on the seat and ordered a cup of coffee and nothing to eat because I had no money. A middle aged woman brought me a cup of coffee and every hour or so asked if I needed a refill.
I spent the whole night in the diner and was never bothered by anyone. I looked scruffy. I had been working and living in the same clothes all summer, and had a beard. The next morning I got back out on the road, and eventually got a ride all the way to the western part of Nebraska.
I wasn’t hassled, much less arrested, for loitering, but I don’t know how I would have been treated had I been black, Hispanic or Indian, and that is the innocence that has been referred to as White Privilege.