What the Starbucks Philadelphia Incident Reveals about Implicit Bias

Two men, peacefully sat waiting for their friend to arrive at a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks, were arrested. The manager of this Starbucks chose to call the Philadelphia Police Department which escalated into the viral video circulating social media.

These men’s crime? Nothing. Seriously. There is no backstory beyond that they were two men meeting up with a third to discuss business in the swanky Rittenhouse neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pa. That is it.They were literally arrested and detained until 1:30am the following morning for nothing.

How many people go to Starbucks to tap away on their laptops with or without ever making a purchase? How many people go to Starbucks to meet up with friends or colleagues, to sign paperwork or simply sit alone, with or without ever making a purchase? Why were the police called by this Rittenhouse Starbucks manager? What is the crime, other than just merely being Black?

The look of self protective resignation is probably the worst part of this whole episode. The faces of these men as they are shamefully cuffed and forced to leave the Starbucks, even while so many come to their defense is disheartening.

But can you blame them for not putting up a fight? With the unresolved murders and assaults of so many Black people, typically unarmed, typically doing normal things like walking home in a hoodie, playing outside, hanging with friends at a water park, or simply standing out back of our grandmother’s home by those who swore an oath to protect and serve, it is often confusing to know how to engage them. Oftentimes, we, citizens of another shade, meet them with a mixture anger and fear, you know, like we would a gang, except this one is backed by the law.

Anyone who has ever been to a Starbucks knows that it is the “meet-up” place in the city. So many people come to wait for friends, work on their laptops, sit and people watch without making a single purchase at all. So, the barista using that as a reason to call the police in the first place is negated there.

There is no other explanation for this incident save one: discrimination. And Black people are not having it. Black people have already proven the power of our dollar. H&M’s monkey hoodie is one of the latest examples of that. And while Starbucks has since issued apologies from company and directly from the CEO, swearing there will be an investigation, the damage has already been done. There is already a call to #boycottstarbucks until there is some action, like, I don’t know, firing the barista who called the police in the first place.

But is it all Starbucks fault? I say no.

The Philadelphia Police Department is equally culpable. Philly is no utopia and there are actual crimes to be solved here, and yet a half a dozen officers converge and then proceed to arrest two Black men who have done nothing but be law abiding citizens waiting for a meeting.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross defending these officers. When there was definitely actual crimes to solve, here were way too many officers of Philadelphia participating in an act of discrimination. This was the Commissioner’s chance to calm the city and the watching nation. But what does he do but defend the incorrect, discriminatory behavior of his officers.

This entire situation is disgusting, but it made us take a good look at ourselves; from the barista who saw two black men sitting in Starbucks who called the police, to the officers who removed these men, to the customers who defended the men and to the protestors who converged on that same Starbucks Sunday.

I am encouraged by the latter two.

May more people have the guts to stand up when they see something wrong. May more of us come to each other’s aide. May more of us call out discrimination or bigotry or sexism or racism aloud, especially those of us with privilege.

We need to talk about implicit bias. We need to talk about why two Black men cannot simply sit in a Starbucks, especially in the affluent neighborhood of Rittenhouse, without being arrested for nothing. We need to talk about why these officers even thought to arrest these men. We need to talk about privilege and racism, but more important, we need to listen to each other.

We have some work to do.

Whitney Alese is a writer, podcaster and cultural commentator. Featured in WIRED Magazine (September 2020). She is based in Philadelphia.

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