Starbucks arrests: Who gets to decide whether you’re a patron or a trespasser?
Public outrage over the arrest of two African American men at a downtown Starbucks sparked a corporate crisis that led the company to take the unprecedented step of announcing it would close more than 8,000 stores for an afternoon in May to train baristas on how to recognize their racial biases.
The scene of two black men in handcuffs being led out of the Philadelphia coffee shop by police last week delivered an uncomfortable reminder of the country’s racial disparities.
The incident illustrates a pervasive bias that can affect even the most mundane activities in U.S. public spaces — in this case, meeting someone for a coffee. The two men were waiting for a business associate when the manager called the police.
Nowhere else in Philadelphia are African Americans more disproportionately stopped by police than in the Center City neighborhood surrounding the Starbucks, two blocks from ritzy Rittenhouse Square, where rents in luxury apartments run as high as $10,000 a month.
While African Americans make up 3 percent of the area’s residents, they account for 67 percent of pedestrian police stops, according to a 2017 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has monitored racial disparity in Philadelphia policing for eight years. Most of those stopped were never charged.
Similar racial disparities in citations and arrests for commercial trespassing occur across the country, according to lawyers and civic leaders.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., African Americans make up 21 percent of the population but accounted for 59 percent of commercial trespassing arrests at businesses such as gas stations and bars, according to the ACLU, which filed a federal lawsuit against the city in 2013.
In Washington, businesses in Georgetown operated a private messaging app that allowed retailers to alert police officers about people they considered suspicious. The vast majority of suspicions in the wealthy, predominantly white community were about black people, some of whom were described in offensive language. The service was suspended in 2015 after concerns arose about racial profiling.
“It raises all kinds of questions. How long can you be on a property? Can you not browse at these stores now? Who gets to determine whether you’re acting as a patron or as a trespasser?” said Jason D. Williamson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, referring to the disproportionate targeting of African Americans. “It goes to the judgments that are made not only by the police but by store owners who ratchet up the level of suspicion depending on what you look like.”
For many African Americans, particularly young black men, the pervasive scrutiny means never letting down their guards while shopping, dining or gathering with friends, Williamson said.
This vigilance may translate into always asking for a receipt and shopping bag, even as municipalities impose small charges for plastic bags. Or dressing in a collared shirt simply to run weekend errands. Or being mindful not to linger for too long in a store.
“It’s the day-to-day opportunity costs of being black in America,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Kevin Harden Jr., a 32-year-old lawyer who works near Rittenhouse Square, said he often is ignored by wait staff when he trades in his three-piece suits for jeans and Timberland boots on weekends.
In the Starbucks case, one or both of the men had asked to use the restroom before they purchased anything. A Starbucks employee told the men that the company policy was to refuse the use of bathrooms to non-customers and asked the men to leave, according to an account by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross.
The manager called the police when the men did not leave. Police handcuffed the men and led them out of the store, a scene captured by bystanders’ cellphones. They were released early the next morning with no charges filed.
Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson apologized to the men in person this week for what he called the “reprehensible” circumstances that led to their arrest. The company also removed the manager who called police.
Ross, who is black, has defended his police department’s handling of the case, describing the officers’ response as “professional.”
“These officers did absolutely nothing wrong. They followed policy; they did what they were supposed to do,” Ross said on Facebook Live on Saturday.
Craig M. Straw, Philadelphia’s first deputy city solicitor, said the city and police department have been working with the ACLU to cut in half the number of pedestrian stops without reasonable suspicion since 2016.
Officers who have consistently high numbers of inappropriate stops are disciplined, from verbal counseling to suspension.
Straw acknowledged that despite the reduced number of stops, the racial disparities remain. He said experts who have examined the data disagree on whether race played a predominant role in the stops.
Jeannine Deni, store manager at a Barnes & Noble in Center City, said people are welcome to read in the bookstore or sit in its second-floor cafe for as long as they would like without making a purchase. Restrooms are also open to the public.
She said the store rarely involves the police, doing so only when visitors are harming themselves or others.
Deni said it is important that people in the community know the store is a safe place.
“It all comes down to behavior,” Deni said. “If you’re sitting and reading a book, that’s what you’d expect to see in a bookstore.”
At a McDonald’s near Rittenhouse Square, a sign alerts customers to the store’s 20-minute time limit for consuming food. “PLEASE — NO LOITERING,” the sign said in bold, capital black letters.
Latasha Adams, a manager at the restaurant, defended the restaurant’s policies on loitering and trespassing. Almost once a day, Adams says, employees have to escort an unruly visitor or patron out of the store.
Adams said the time limit is necessary even for paying customers who keep to themselves, to prevent them from “taking advantage of the situation.”
“The customer doesn’t like it when people trespass,” Adams said. “It kind of hurts our business because who wants to eat here when you have a trespasser just chilling in here, just taking up spaces that are supposed to be for the customers?”
But Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said some business owners use law enforcement to “frighten away people they don’t want there.”
“Businesses call police all the time to keep people who they don’t like the looks of from congregating in front of their store,” Roper said. “It’s homeless people, not only African Americans.”
The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a 2010 lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department for racial profiling, although Roper said the force had improved its practices in recent years and no longer stops people solely for “loitering.”
Local teenagers Gabriel Bangert, 15, and Steven Gregory, 15, said it was only a matter of time before a racial-profiling incident in Center City garnered national attention.
Bangert, who identifies as white, black and Puerto Rican, said he’s witnessed police ask black men playing Frisbee in Rittenhouse Square to leave for “talking loudly.”
Gregory, who is Guatemalan, said that two months ago an African American classmate was asked to leave the Starbucks, which is near their school, after not buying anything.
While the recent arrests have drawn national outrage, Gregory said the mistreatment of black customers is hardly isolated to that one store or chain — or indeed to Philadelphia.
“It happens a lot,” he said.
In Grand Rapids, the 2013 lawsuit stemmed from the police department’s longtime practice of relying on “no-trespass letters” signed by business owners to deter crime. Police used the program to justify stopping, questioning and sometimes searching individuals who they deemed did not have a legitimate business purpose to be on the property — even without speaking with the business owner or any employee about the person. Police considered the program a valuable law enforcement tool designed to combat low-level crime.
“The fact that a store had a no-trespass letter in the window cannot be enough to give police the authority to stop someone,” Williamson said.
The city changed its policy in 2017 to prohibit police from using no-trespass letters as the sole basis for a pedestrian stop.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said that until U.S. society addresses the issue of implicit bias, the disproportionate wrongful arrests of African Americans will continue.
“It’s an ever-present threat to one’s freedom,” Johnson said. “Our ability to express ourselves freely is drastically hampered by the fact that someone could interpret malicious motives just because we exist or appear a certain way.”
Siegel reported from Philadelphia.