The Starbucks Incident — What Do You Want?


I will readily admit I don’t know a ton about what happened in that Starbucks in Philadelphia.  I’ve seen the videos of the incident and the Police Chief.  I saw some television reports and an article or two.  Seen some twitter action.  But like most of America, I have no idea what really happened.  That’s correct  America.  You don’t have a clue.

Good on Starbucks for reacting and shutting down their stores for bias training.  It’s something.  However, I have been through such training.  It can be useful if you are ready to listen and meaningless if you treat it as a check box so you can get back to work.  I am innately distrustful of institutional training on social issues.  As a manager for years in corporate America, I spent days in such training and saw theories come and go.  I don’t trust that going big ever really changes minds.

I have been trying to understand the incident in small pieces.  The Internet is not good at this.  Small things become big themes and agendas in micro-seconds.  People are attached to grandiosity.

It seems clear that the incident began with fear.  The manager saw two young black men and reacted.  I wonder about her.  Manager at Starbucks is what now passes for a great job in America.  Benefits, stability, a working wage.  Maybe she supports a family.  Much at stake in how she does that job.  Why was she afraid?  What had her boss told her was “policy?”

I have seen some ridicule of the idea of “white fear.”  I get it.  But our minds don’t.   Fear, no matter the source, is processed quickly, often beyond intellect.  In general, much that we see as bias is rooted in a fear of the other.  Any other.  Could that manager have been a raging racist?  It’s possible.  Philadelphia can be a tough town, no shortage of interracial tension there.  Or did she have a more personal fear.

I lived in Washington DC in the early 80’s.  The city was 80% black.  (Now, it less than 50% black.  The waves of immigration and gentrification are at work there too.)  I was a liberal from a small town, with all the naiveté that implies.  In rapid succession, in a 100 yard radius from our rented townhouse, I was robbed on the street, stopped a young man from breaking into our house, escaped a second robbery by talking and moving fast and saw someone break an Orange Soda bottle in the face of a Korean store owner across the street over a stollen donut.  All of the actors were young black men. 

Moments like that create a powerful street radar.  Young black men made me afraid. Some people like to believe that stereotypes can always be overwhelmed by our big brains.  But stereotyping, profiling, is a lizard brain survival mechanism.  The amygdala responds with fight or flight.  I am sure that when cops walked toward them the young black men felt that little rush of adrenaline.  It’s how humans survive.  When I hear about the reaction of the manager, I wonder, what else was going on for that person? 

[And still…when I moved to Portland in the mid 80’s, I felt most comfortable in the Albina/Killingsworth neighborhood.  I got my unemployment checks there and hung out at the Killingsworth library.  Fear or not, it felt like the place I had recently known.  Humans are strange that way.  Later, when I met some West Side types, I was questioned about hanging out in the “wrong” part of town.  Yea, there it is again, ignorance and fear.]

What strikes me the most about the Starbucks incident is the number of times fear could have been defused then transformed.  

There are two Starbucks across from City Hall.  It was THE offsite meeting place.  All day long people sit in those stores drinking nothing…white people.  If I am the young black men, I am pissed off when I start getting treated differently.  I can be dogmatic and a bit of a hothead.  I have a sensitive trigger for injustice.  

Still, here was the first moment to begin to understand and defuse.  What if, once the manager’s fear was apparent, one of the men had tossed down $2.25 for a small coffee?  What would have changed?  Blaming the victim some would yell!  What about refusing the victim narrative and assuming a different position of power?  Use the restroom, talk to the manager, try to connect on a small human level.  By taking the money issue (the Starbucks corporate issue) off the table, there would be time for the men to ask the manager, and themselves, “What do you want?”

I have come to realize that that small question is vital in human interactions.  We are all seeking something, in each breathing moment.  If you accept that as true, then paths suddenly open.  As we fall into the social interaction traps of tribalism and big ideas, all catalyzed by the Internet, I often find it difficult to figure out what people really want.  What human scale outcome would satisfy us?

Once the men sat back down, and didn’t leave, the police were called.  The police were stuck in the middle.  They didn’t wake up that morning thinking they wanted this moment in Starbucks to be their day.  I am not surprised 6 cops came.  If they have backup available, safety in numbers. The manager, speaking as the property has the  legal right to control who is in the store.  Having been asked to enforce that right, the police asked the men to leave. 

I asked myself, if I was angry and felt disrespected, would I want to push the envelope and make the incident bigger.  Make a point.  Maybe so.  In one respect the young men still had the power.  Again, what do you want? However, at this point, no doubt they too were afraid.  I don’t believe the police wanted to cuff them, but I assume it was the only way they could legally and safely compel the men to leave the store.  Now we have the anger, legality, policy and momentum in control.  Is that what everyone wanted?  No doubt at this point the men know knew that everything was being filmed, a different route to power.

What about the police?  By all accounts they were professional.  But here was another point in the episode where civil human interaction could have changed the outcome.  The man the young men were meeting with had arrived.  What if, once outside, the police took off the cuffs and just talked to the 3 men?  Once out of the store, the manager’s fear is addressed.  Here was an opportunity for the police to talk to all the parties.  You don’t need 6 cops for that.  A couple of cops, in community policing mode, could have worked with all parties, opened a safe dialogue.  Hell, they could have bought coffee.  They were in the right place.  That’s a lot to put on beat officers.  They aren’t social workers but they are street smart and know the power of conversation.  It would have taken less time to talk about what happened than doing the arrest paperwork.

This few moments in a Starbucks was littered with opportunities squandered.

While I don’t think big trainings do much good, I do know that changing one mind, face  to face, has a lasting impact.  There was no way any of the people in that store could resolve societal bias, fear or racism.  Those goals are simply beyond their collective power in that moment.   But there was a way for at least 3 people to lower fear and create new understanding.  A single mind, a single fear, challenged and changed has a lasting impact.  That person’s new understanding echoes in their life as a what Christians call “a Witness.”  Connections made with risk and compassion have a lasting and multiplying impact.

How we answer the question, “What do you want?” is important. If your answer is a big themed, I want the kind of archetypal change in collective consciousness that will change the world…then you best get over yourself.  You only control your thoughts, your actions and your emotions.  If at…say…Starbucks, you ask “What do you want?” and realize that in that moment you have a chance to have an effect on just one person, then you are probably on the right path.

Update 4/21/18:  (I have listened to the police calls and seen other video.)  It turns out that the female manager was operating under instructions to call the police if someone didn’t buy anything and refused to leave.  She actually went to the table of the two men, asked if she could get them something.  She doesn’t seem to have taken any effort to explain the policy and went right to the phone.  There was no mention of race in her call nor the police radio traffic.  The police asked the men to just leave and they refused.  They had agency until they were cuffed.  Fear and surprise may have prevented action.  So many chances to have a different outcome.

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