5/1/2018 1 Comment
Last week, two black men were arrested for trespassing at a Starbucks because they asked to use the bathroom and took up a whole table without ordering anything. When asked to leave, they refused.
Did the men deserve to be arrested for that? Did the police do the "right" thing by arresting them? While my gut response was that it seemed like an overreaction, the answer is yes. As Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said in a statement, "... If a business calls and they say that someone is here that I no longer wish to be in my business, (officers) now have a legal obligation to carry out their duties. And they did just that." I also agree with Ross, who is black, that race probably played a role in this. "As an African-American male," he said, "I am very aware of implicit bias."
One weird argument I keep seeing on social media is that there is no reason the men should have been arrested, because they didn't do anything. "A white woman who filmed the encounter said so! She saw the whole thing!" they write.
Another very weird argument is that it's "racist" and "unreasonable" for white people to wonder if there might be "more to the story."
Regardless of what happens with Starbucks in the wake of this PR nightmare, and regardless of what happens next with these two black entrepreneurs (hopefully, it's not that they get boycotted by the black community for trying to include lighter-skinned black people and white people in their growing business...), I feel morally obligated to address these two arguments.
1. Just because one white lady says they didn't do anything, doesn't mean they didn't do anything.
If you're sitting in a Starbucks, scrolling through your Facebook, when suddenly the police arrive and arrest two guys, you do not know the whole story. You cannot say that the guys didn't do anything.
As far as you know, they didn't.
But what, really, do you know?
Maybe the police were called because one of the guys was the barista's abusive, violent, psychostalker ex-boyfriend.
Maybe they were called because the teenager behind the coffee bar was physically assaulted or spat on last time she confronted one (or more) men about not buying a drink, so she decided she should let the police handle it. (Girls and women have a right to feel safe, right?)
Maybe they were called because the guys were shoplifting, and the "witness" didn't notice because she was playing on her phone until a few seconds ago.
There's a reason we have a judicial process. There's a reason judges and juries want multiple witnesses. There's a reason social scientists say eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Just because one person said something happened a certain way, doesn't make it true.
A good thinker is a skeptical thinker. They don't just accept things as truth because it evokes the right emotion -- righteousness or outrage or confirmation of existing views. They keep looking for new evidence, and they analyze the quality and quantity of the existing evidence. Which leads me to:
2. It's "racist" to wonder if there's more to the story -- you should just always believe everyone when they say something happened.
Let me repeat: there's a reason we have a judicial process.
THE PROCESS MATTERS.
The process is about doing our best to uncover truth and administer justice in as fair a way as possible. The process is not perfect. Not even close. But it's probably among the best in the world -- and it's way better than letting the mob administer its own perverted version of "justice." The process is why angry white mobs don't just go around lynching black dudes because a white girl claims he raped her.
Of course, in this case, we're not discussing the legal guilt of the guys who were arrested (we've already established that, technically, they were arrested for a reason: the police asked them to leave and they refused, so the police had an obligation to remove them from the private establishment). We're discussing the social "guilt" of the Starbucks employee who called the police, and the "guilt" of Starbucks, for being racists. Many on social media are calling for the barista to be fired for her crimes. Many are saying Starbucks should pay the dudes tons of money and "do more" than close down for a day to do an all-employee "bias training."
Without knowing anything except that two guys got arrested, we condemn everyone involved (or accused) to guilt.
No. Just no.
We are lucky to live in a country where people ask what else there is to this story. We are lucky to live in a country where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. (Which is why Betsy DeVos wants to change how colleges handle sexual assault charges -- everyone has a right to due process.) We are lucky to live in a country where the process prevails over blood feuds, mob justice, and other barbaric ways of doling out revenge.
As Americans, you might even say we're obligated to ask ourselves, "Is there more to this story? Might there be other sides or perspectives?"
As with every controversy, the answer is yes. Of course.
What is the other perspective here?
That any employee of any business has the right to ask someone to leave their business. If the person refuses to leave, that is trespassing. Many businesses have an official policy that the police must be called in such an instance, because this reduces the chance of escalation. I don't know the Starbucks policy on that -- but I know that if I owned a business, I would want my employees to use the help of trained professionals, rather than put their own health and safety at risk.
I think this is especially true at Starbucks, which, at least in my area, has more than its share of homeless and mentally ill people camping out all afternoon. These people are unpredictable, and often irritable and unpleasant. They drive away business by taking up entire tables and bothering paying customers, sometimes by mumbling incoherently at them while they're trying to work, sometimes by screaming at them for being spies sent by Donald Trump, and sometimes, frankly, just by smelling really bad and making Starbucks gross and unpleasant.
It's a touchy issue, and one I'm sure Starbucks has been scrambling to deal with in some kind of discrete, not-heartless-looking manner.
But for now, trespassing charges may be their best option, and I'm sure employees are aware of that. And, as I already said, they may actually be required to call for police assistance if they ask someone to leave and they don't.
When the police showed up at the Starbucks location, they asked the men to leave several times. The men refused and told the officers to take them to jail -- and, as the commissioner later said, the officers were then obligated to take them to jail.
The police were professional and did nothing wrong.
The Starbucks employees were professional and did nothing wrong. (Unless, of course, you buy into the social justice argument that your safety and bodily autonomy only matter when it comes to people with more privilege than you.)
Is it possible that the reason the employee noticed these two men hadn't ordered anything was because they were black?
Sure. As the commissioner also said, implicit bias is a very real thing. But it's pretty bizarre and unfair to assume someone's intentions.
Anecdotally, all I can say is that I've tried camping out at coffee shops all afternoon without buying anything, too. Sometimes, it's fine and no one bothers me. Other times, I'm asked to buy something...
So I buy something. It may be the cheapest thing on the menu, but I still buy something.
It's as simple as that.
Which is why I think this story is majorly overblown -- but it's still worth talking about, because it's a good reminder to be a skeptical thinker instead of an irrational and emotional one. It's a good reminder that facts matter more than feelings.
Or, at least, they should.