Right from the start I have to make clear that the sudden leap to action from concerned citizens of good conscience was impressive. The energy and force of activism was encouraging. And the spirit of justice in the quest for racial equality was heart-warming and well-conceived. But the Starbucks boycott as it is being executed can backfire horribly if we are not careful. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson should be rewarded for how he handled this situation so that others will follow his lead.
The CEO has been appropriately apologetic. I listened to his statement as delivered from his own mouth and he didn’t just say the right things, he delivered the words with sincerity. He promised swift action to make the two young men whole who were unjustly harassed by Philadelphia police and arrested for the crime of “waiting at a coffee shop while black.” He and his second in command were on the ground in Philadelphia the very next day to meet with community members to assure them that the Starbucks policy of creating a welcoming environment included them. And perhaps most important of all, the jack-ass racist manager of that Starbucks location is no longer employed there. There is no need for any continuing protest against Starbucks anywhere – including that particular Philadelphia store that absolutely deserved to be targeted the day after the two young men were arrested.
My friends, this is called a win. We have to know when we have won a battle and get off the battle-field. Hanging around the battle-field after victory has been secured is a recipe for disaster. The vanquished foe – in this case the spirit of racist entitlement and the practice of racial profiling – could catch a second wind somehow and rise from the ground and go on the attack again. And because we’re still on the field we’re re-fighting a battle we’ve already won. Who does that help? That’s how sympathetic “go-fund-me” pages pop up in support of the now disposed of manager. That’s how alternative versions of the events pop up from new “witnesses” that cast doubt on what had been clearly settled facts. That’s how slimy profiles of the victims get painted by racist scandal jockeys who seize on an opportunity like this to push the mythology of white victim-hood or solidarity with law enforcement (unless of course that law enforcement is investigating anybody connected with Donald Trump).
Most troubling of all is the prospect of turning allies into adversaries by over-playing our hand. When someone extends a sincere apology and reaches out to correct a wrong that has been done to you, you should accept it. This applies pretty much across the board but especially when the one doing the apologizing is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the wrong-doer was one of his employees that works almost 3,000 miles away. That scenario demonstrates that this circumstances has been taken seriously enough to be a teachable moment that is almost certain to leave everybody better off in its wake.
But continuing to protest Starbucks all over the country as has been suggested in some circles is entirely counter-productive and will squander the public good will toward the cause that exists right now. At this moment, no reasonable person believes that what happened to those two young men was in any way right or fair. You’d have to scour the bowels of right-wing radio (which I did yesterday) to find people who would justify what happened. Rational actors regardless of race where having none of it and up until now have been calling a spade a spade. But see how swiftly the energy around this situation shifts if the average person finds themselves blocked from getting their own cup of coffee on their way to their job or meeting for a few days. The good will and consensus will evaporate like rain off of hot pavement in the summertime. And in case you hadn’t noticed, good will has been in short supply over the last couple of years and is a little tough to come by so it cannot be squandered like this.
The people who showed up to protest in Philly on yesterday showed guts and gumption and they should be commended. They pounded the hell out of one of the 13,390 Starbucks in America and got justice. But that ain’t happening in another 13,389 stores. Beyond being unfeasible it is fundamentally unfair. I’ve been waiting for friends and colleagues at Starbucks while black for years in cities all over America and never had a problem. But I lived in a Philadelphia suburb for a couple of years as a teenager and nary a day went by when I didn’t hear “nigger” hurled at me from some direction so I dig that this is a neighborhood problem.
I’ve also had the misfortune of being mistreated and mishandled by police officers when I was a young black man so I also dig that experience and am fully in support of action against the department responsible for this. And believe me, there are some lawyers up there in Philly waiting to tear that department a new asshole over this incident and they most certainly will. A NINE HOUR LONG detainment on ‘trespassing’? In the hands of capable counsel you can rest assured those young men are going to be better than okay – and a lot better off than the asshole that called the police on them.
It is just crucial that this is handled properly. We have a great deal to gain by doing so but if we are reckless we’ll find that we have every bit as much to lose. Call off the protest, folks. Point made. Mission accomplished. I opened up with this and I’ll close with it for clarity: Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson should be rewarded for how he handled this situation so that others will follow his lead.