Starbucks and the Criminalization of Blackness
“Criminalization of blackness” is at the root of the arrest, where Blacks who do things that whites do all the time is considered a reason for arrest, explains Eugene Puryear of the D.C. Movement for Black Lives
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. Protesters gathered early Monday morning at a Philadelphia Starbucks where two black men were arrested last week. They were demanding a full apology for the incident. Starbucks Chief Executive Kevin Johnson apologized late on Saturday for the arrests, which sparked accusations of racial profiling. The men were accused of trespassing, but have said they were waiting for a friend before ordering. The protesters held up a banner that read “End Stop and Frisk,” and chanted, “Starbucks coffee is anti-black.”.
PROTESTER: Where’s the real, we need a real, an actual, solid, apology. I am not convinced that Starbucks, or any of the baristas, or any of the managers fully know the effect that they have on black and brown communities. So until they get it we’re not leaving.
PROTESTER: Starbucks calls the police for every little incident that occurs in their stores, and Starbucks is a gateway to mass incarceration in this city for our people.
EDDIE CONWAY: Starbucks CEO Johnson promised a thorough investigation of the incident caught on video by patrons Thursday and shared wildely online. Philadelphia Police Commissioner on Saturday defended the arrests, saying his officers had acted after Starbucks employees told him the pair was trespassing. Video of Thursday’s incident shows patrons telling officers the pair were doing nothing wrong, and appeared to have been targeted merely because of their race. The manager who called the police is reportedly no longer working at the store.
Now joining us to discuss this is Eugene Puryear. Eugene is a journalist, author, and activist. He is co-founder of Stop Police Terror Project D.C., and a member of D.C. Movement for Black Lives Steering Committee. Eugene, thanks for joining me.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Thank you so much for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Eugene, just tell us right now what you know about this incident.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, the incident, as far as I can tell and from what we’ve seen, is that these two gentlemen were in a Starbucks waiting for a friend, which I think anyone who gets any sort of coffee shop knows that that is not only something that happens often, but we know Starbucks from having Wi-Fi and, you know, comfortable places to sit, and tables and the like, encourages people to come there, spend significant time, and so on and so forth. And that in the course of that they were targeted as, perhaps, trespassing while waiting for their friend. If I understand the story correctly, their friend actually showed up right around the time that they were being arrested. But regardless of all of that it just seems unbelievable on so many different levels, given that, I mean, they didn’t even ask them to leave, or to move along. All of a sudden they immediately go to an arrest.
And I think that it really is obviously a case, and this is what we’ve seen in city after city after city around the country, of how quote-unquote ‘stop and frisk’ and the use of the police to control space in a place where young black males standing in front of convenience stores, on the corner, or sitting in Starbucks are so often criminalized for just what is routine behavior. Waiting for friends, hanging out, minding their own business. And I don’t think there’s any other way to look at this than as a form of racial profiling.
EDDIE CONWAY: Now, you said they were waiting for a friend. And I understand some of the reports, as you just noted, said that this friend actually showed up and verified that they were waiting for him, and they had a business meeting set up. And in spite of that, they still arrested the two individuals. And this friend was white, incidentally. What do you think is the reason for this kind of racial attitude today?
EUGENE PURYEAR: I think it’s the criminality of blackness. That we have associated blackness, especially young black males, in the ‘superpredator’ mentality, with people who must be doing something wrong if they don’t appear to be doing something that, I don’t even know what they would be doing. I mean, anyone who knows anything about Starbucks, especially, it’s often the sign of meetings, it’s often the site of business meetings, people do job interviews there. And it’s not that strange that someone would walk in there, not buy something, and sit down and wait for someone else for some particular reason. And so that’s par for the course with coffee shops of all types around this [inaudible] culture.
So to me it can only be something that is defined by the criminalization of blackness, and the fact that just being a black person doing what other people always do can inherently mark you as someone who is, quote-unquote, ‘doing something wrong’ by someone who has racially biased [inaudible]. And I just add, I think this is extraordinarily ironic because after the Baltimore Uprising, Starbucks made a huge show of how they were going to open more stores in Baltimore and other, quote-unquote, ‘depressed’ areas, and trying to hire more black people in their stores as part of what they deem community empowerment, and so on and so forth. And apparently that was just superficial. But for a company who claims to care about these issues it seems that they’ve done very little to educate their workforce around these issues of bias and racism that employees maybe carry.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, one of the things concerning me is I see the statement that was released indicate that the manager is no longer working at the store. What does that mean? I mean, did they promote him, did they give him another managerial spot, is he on paid leave? What’s the situation with this? Because that doesn’t sound like a resolution, that they just took him out of the store.
EUGENE PURYEAR: No, and I also would like to know what’s going on. And since Mr. Johnson, the CEO is going to meet with these two gentlemen sometime in the near future, potentially, I’m sure we will learn more about what happened with this manager. It’s possible that they have been fired or whatever it may have been. But it does seem like Starbucks’ ultimate PR damage control mode. They’re getting the manager off site, whenever they did to him. They’ve got the CEO saying he’s going to meet with these guys and apologize to them face to face. They’re, you know, going on a sort of full-spectrum blitz here to say like, oh, this is not who we are or what we stand to be.
And I think that, again, that’s just an obfuscation. Because it’s not about being sorry. It’s about what you’re going to do moving forward. And I think we’ve seen Starbucks be a marker for gentrification around the country. I think in some of these policies and some of them [inaudible] how they interact with communities that they really need to answer for and not just sort of superficially try to sweep the problem under the rug, and move it to a side, just to the side as if it was any issue.
EDDIE CONWAY: Is there any other incidents like this occurring outside of Starbucks, or within the Starbucks family itself that you are aware of?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Starbucks itself I’m not aware of. But I’m sad to say that and I think in everyday life we see that this is par for the course. And not only just in terms of, as I’ve already mentioned, a significant portion of the black community often being subject to this kind of overpolicing and stop and frisk just for being present in a place. But I would also note the homeless community, people who often have nowhere else to go who have to go into coffee shops, stores, and the like just to seek refuge, or to take a rest, or maybe get a charger device, something like that are often frequently criminalized, and the police are often used to shoo them out of places, if not get them arrested, to remove them from places because most businesses consider it, quote-unquote, ‘undesirable’ to have homeless people there.
And I think that’s an important part of the story that we don’t lose, that this sort of behavior is reprehensible. Certainly because it’s racially biased manifestation, and I think oftentimes those members of our community who are without homes are often doubly criminalized when they’re trying to seek refuge in businesses and in other places, which oftentimes is their only option.
EDDIE CONWAY: It’s funny. I’m smiling at this because earlier in the winter, I was bottled up in this huge coat. I guess it looked like a Russian coat or something. And a big hat and a scarf. And I had a shopping bag, and I went into Starbucks a few blocks from here, in fact. And at the time I was the executive producer at this TV network.
And I went in there, and the patrons treated me like I was a homeless person. And I could feel the climate. And so it was about me being black and it was about me being, I didn’t have on a business suit. And so I know for a fact that that climate kind of exists. Well, what do you think, I see, and we talked about this some time ago, there’s been several thousand Black Lives Matter protesters around the country in the last couple of years, and this stuff is still going on. Is there, is there another step, this is there another way in which they can address this and get some results?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I think that continuing to do what we have done is one thing, but I think that we have to start thinking more concretely, too, about political power. I mean, how do we exercise dominion over these institutions that are putting these kinds of policies, how do we put better policies in place. I think ultimately when we’re talking about, you know, businesses like Starbucks and the impact they have on the community, whether it be around policing, whether it be around issues of gentrification, have to raise a lot of issues when we talk about gaining political power. It has to raise a lot of issues about capitalism here in the United States, and what does it mean to have services that are responsibly controlled, democratically controlled by the masses of people so that, you saw people in that Starbucks, for instance, outraged that this was actually taking place, and didn’t understand what was going on.
So how do we look at a position where we’re not just waiting for benevolent leaders like the people who are in charge of Starbucks, or Whole Foods, or Twitter, or whatever it may be or Netflix, or these other CEOs that claim to be for Black Lives Matter, to try to determine norms of how people should react, and how do we look more to having a regulatory state, how do we look more to having democratic control over institutions that allow us to really exercise more power over how people should be treated in the community.
EDDIE CONWAY: Please keep us posted. Follow this and see where it goes, and let us know so we can follow up on it. OK?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK, and thanks for joining me. And thank you for joining the Real News.