Starbucks Philadelphia: Controversies Without Nuance
by

In an interview that he was gracious enough to grant me recently, Frederick Schiff, Patrol Lieutenant of the San Francisco Police Department, remarked that “it is the perceived extreme nature of our profession that attracts attention and generates emotion.” “Sometimes,” according to Schiff, “an incident is expanded out of context and made into a racial issue, when in fact race had nothing to do with it. The media survives on soundbites. There are limited attention spans, so it’s limited information that is communicated. That is almost always adverse to us [police] because very few of our explanations fit into soundbites.”

The present controversy at the Starbucks in Philadelphia is a representative example of the problem Schiff deftly describes. Whether it is “a racial issue” or no, there is no doubt that, as so often happens today, the progressive media has grossly distorted the context, reducing the incident to “limited information” and “soundbites”: “racism,” “implicit bias,” and all the predictable rest.

Last Thursday, two young black men, who were reportedly waiting to meet with a family friend to discuss a business matter, were arrested at a busy Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, in a video published on Sunday, explained that the police officers did nothing wrong. According to Starbucks employees, he said, the two men, after having been seated for some time, requested to use the restroom, which, like many private restrooms these days, is kept locked. The employees informed the men of the company policy, namely, that only customers may use the restroom. Since the men, rather strangely, had not purchased anything, the employees then asked them to leave. The men refused, so the store manager called the police. Two police came, but the men still did not yield. So several more police were called to the scene, and at length the men were arrested, although not, said Ross, before making an insult: “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re only a $45,000 a year employee.” Whether this was directed at the police officers or the Starbucks employees it is not clear. While the men were in custody, Starbucks, having (of course) immediately gone into PR damage control mode, informed the police that it did not want to prosecute the men, and so they were released.

There is a person who, more than anyone, has made understanding what happened with any nuance exceedingly difficult. A local writer named Melissa DePino, having observed the tail end of the incident, posted her video of it on Twitter along with the words: “The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.”

While there is perhaps some justice in DePino’s last sentence, on the whole this account is quite inadequate. DePino does not mention the bathroom request, which was apparently what prompted the employees to ask the men to leave. Neither does she demonstrate any awareness, although it could hardly be more obvious, that a business is well within its rights by telling nonpaying persons to leave. To be sure, Starbucks is a business, and not a public lounge.

Since causing the incident to “go viral,” DePino, a well-meaning woman who seems incapable of doing otherwise, has continued to simplify the context in which the arrest occurred and the chain of events that led up to it.

On Saturday she gave an interview to Victor Fiorillo of Philadelphia Magazine.

When did you first notice the two men who wound up being arrested at the Starbucks?

I was just sitting there working on my laptop, and I guess I first noticed them when the two first cops — the bike cops — walked in. The girl behind the counter had called 911, apparently, and the cops came and said the guys were “trespassing.”

Clearly, then, DePino did not see the crucial exchange between the two young black men and the Starbucks employees. Her account begins once the police arrive. And it should be said here that DePino does not strike one as the type who is likely to be a disinterested observer. She may be eminently well-intended, but that she is eminently fair-minded seems highly doubtful. After all, this is a person who in her Twitter profile describes herself as “outraged since Nov 8 (well, maybe before that).” The allusion to the Trump Presidency is palpable, and it is difficult to resist the impression of a type of person, never so common, who basically looks for reasons to be outraged.

Indeed, a close read of the rest of her Twitter account strongly suggests that DePino is what has become known as a social justice warrior. Though often full of good moral impulses, such persons generally prove to be the least objective of thinkers, like the many academics who, as Heather Mac Donald has shown, manipulate phenomena to suit their a priori agenda, namely, their careerist aim to propagate a sense of victimization.

In an op-ed published Monday on CNN’s website, DePino tells us that “On Thursday, I was thrust, or rather, I inadvertently inserted myself into a national conversation about race. Me — a middle-aged, upper-middle-class white woman who has never had to worry about where I go, what I do, or how I act. And now that I’m here, in this conversation, I have a few things to say.” The problem is that while DePino sees herself as “the vehicle to spark a new chapter in the conversation [about race],” her thoughts are as trite as her language: she has absolutely nothing substantive to say about what happened at the Starbucks in Philly; rather just more of the usual vague progressive sentimentalism that functions to simplify a complex context.

For instance, in her interview on Saturday with Victor Fiorillo of Philadelphia Magazine, DePino says, “These guys never raised their voices. They never did anything remotely aggressive…. They were not doing anything.” It does not occur to DePino that, while the men may not have raised their voices, their refusal to comply with Starbucks policy, and their alleged insult, may reasonably be interpreted as aggressiveness. Although the men may have seemed more or less unthreatening, it is by no means evident that they did nothing wrong. How would DePino know anyway, having seen so little of the actual dispute?

After Richard Ross issued his public statement, DePino admitted to omitting some details from her narrative. “Yes,” she tweeted, “the two men were asked to leave @Starbucks, as the Philly Police said in their statement, but they sat there peacefully and had the nerve to ask WHY they were being asked to leave. What counts as peaceful protest? Isn’t that what this is?!”

The utter cluelessness of this woman, the fundamental childishness of her mind is evident in this language and desperate, pleading tone. She is oblivious to the fact that a private business is not obligated to be a site of protest, whether “peaceful” or no. Nor will it do to say that the men “had the nerve to ask WHY they were being asked to leave,” as if that nerve necessarily signified awareness of an incontestable injustice. Like so many American women who have been through progressive academia, DePino has shown herself to be a very common type of moral hysteric, whose opinions are about as well-formed as high school gossip.

It is no easy thing for a business to maintain order in a big city like Philadelphia, being as it is so full of disorder. On Saturday, Christopher Norris reportedly spoke with the manager of the Starbucks. Norris writes:

Holly — who wouldn’t give me her last name nor share a business card for fear that it would spark online stalking, either by me or whomever I passed her information along to — has managed the 18th & Spruce Street location for a year. And, during that time, she has encountered many individuals who loiter in the café with no intentions of purchasing; at least one of those persons, she claims, chased her around the store after she asked them to leave.

Anyone who is from Philly, or who has worked there for some time, will surely be familiar with such loitering persons. The poorest big city in America, Philadelphia abounds with them.

On Monday, in her interview with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Samantha Melemad observed: “It’s clear from Starbucks Reddit discussions and online forums that staff regularly must make decisions on how to deal with people dealing with addiction or homelessness.”

Indeed. If Starbucks allows nonpaying persons to hang around, then, as at the beleaguered Philadelphia train stations, so full of the mentally ill, there will be the endless task of chasing away the homeless (many of them drug addicts), or people who come in to use the free Wi-Fi, among the myriad other circumstances that might motivate someone to put a private business to personal use at no cost.

As if in self-parody, Kevin Johnson flew in to town in order to apologize to “the two victims.” In the necessary cynical translation, that means he tried to protect his shareholders’ interests by deflecting Starbucks’ indispensable need for order. “My understanding,” he said, “is that the store manager had asked the gentlemen to leave and then, following that, called the police. Calling the police was wrong; it should not have happened. Calling the police was unnecessary.” Unnecessary? Well then, what were the employees to do? They had repeatedly asked two men who were in willful violation of company policy to leave, but the men would not cooperate.

Of course, however, the question is moot: Johnson’s allegiance is to lucre, not truth, and he therefore gives the public the polite, meaningless words he believes it wants to hear.

Our concept has always been that Starbucks is in the community. It’s a gathering place.… Starbucks was built around the concept of the third place and creating a warm and welcoming environment for all customers.… In this particular incident, we did not deliver on that warm, welcoming environment for those two gentlemen, and for that I apologize to them.

As warm and fuzzy as your favorite latte. Perhaps Dean Ted Ruger of the debased UPenn law school can bring in Johnson in as a guest speaker. Afterward these two most lovable white fellows might treat every person of color in Philly to cheesesteaks at Pat’s or Geno’s.

Predictably, the manager of the Starbucks will no longer be working at that location, and the person’s future with the company is pending review. The height of the farce will be reached on May 29, when Starbucks will close all U.S. stores for “racial-bias education.”

In yet more bad news for Starbucks, on Monday a video began circulating in which a black man named Brandon Ward berates a Los Angeles Starbucks manager for allegedly letting a white man use the restroom without having first made a purchase, even though Ward himself was not permitted to do so in the same circumstance. Needless to say, there has been abundant outrage, and as with the Philadelphia controversy, a lack of nuance regarding this incident. In the first place, there are thousands of Starbucks in this country, and we should not just assume that every such difference necessarily signifies racism. Irrespective of company policy, which, according to Kevin Johnson (who, however, was perhaps being disingenuous), is not the same at every location, there is a good deal of individual discretion when it comes to handling such matters.

The video, moreover, shows nothing of Ward’s interaction with the manager (an Asian woman) before the white man, as Ward alleges, was unfairly allowed to use the restroom. In any case, in the video Ward is clearly disrespectful, telling the manager at one point, “You are not in charge.” Whether he behaved like that from the beginning we don’t know. It would hardly be surprising to learn that he did. Of course, it may be said here that Ward’s disrespectful manner merely reflects his just indignation. But here, too, we face the problem of not knowing the nature of his initial interaction with the manager. Was he polite in his request? Did either he or the white man indicate that he intended to purchase something? Did the manager give the white man permission because, having already dealt with Ward, she wasn’t up for telling another customer “no”? Did the manager know the white man, the latter being a regular customer? While I don’t mean to suggest that Ward was not a victim of racism, I do think such questions are merited. In matters where the most exacting fairness is called for, people involved in conflicts are notoriously impartial in their perceptions, accounts, and recollections, and this, as I have argued, owing to human nature itself.

To be sure, in neither case do we know precisely what happened between the Starbucks employees and the black men. And indeed, short of positive knowledge of the employees’ minds, we cannot be sure of whether racism was present or not. I can say that, in my own experience, it is not uncommon for a white man to be told that he has to purchase something in order to use a restroom, just as it is not uncommon for him to not have to meet such a criterion in order to use a restroom. Human experience varies a great deal, and only an ideologue will attribute this variety to racism as a matter of course.

Christopher DeGroot is a columnist at Taki’s Magazine and a contributing editor of New English Review. You can follow him at @CEGrotius.

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