After Philly Starbucks arrest, what does it mean to be black in a ‘white space’?

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad grabs a seat on a low-slung wall inside Rittenhouse Square. It’s a bit chilly but there are still plenty of people sitting on benches. Having a snack. Reading a book. Taking a moment to quietly decompress.   

But Muhammad isn’t feeling so zen.

Muhammad, who is African-American and prefers the pronouns “they” and “them,” says cops often stop them in Center City, seemingly with little reason.

After work one night, Muhammad says officers asked for I.D. outside a nightclub because they allegedly fit the description of a suspect.

On a different night, Muhammad was waiting for a friend outside a pizza place when police told them they couldn’t just stand on the sidewalk if they weren’t buying anything.  

“I said, ‘I’m not moving. You didn’t tell any of these white people to move.’ And the cop said, ‘Well they’re purchasing something.’ And I said, ‘My friend is purchasing something.’ That cop then tried to grab me,” they recall. “I was wrestled to the ground. I was put in the back of a patrol car. They tightened the cuffs so bad that my hands were swollen for about a week.”

Muhammad says they were detained for six hours, and the charges were later dropped. The officer never showed up for court.

With these memories sharp in their mind, Muhammad was not surprised when the neighborhood made international headlines last month, after a video of cops arresting two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, at a Starbucks just a short walk from Rittenhouse Square went viral. The coffee shop’s manager called 911 when she said the two men refused to make a purchase or leave. The police report categorized the incident as “defiant trespass,” but in the end, neither man was charged with a crime. On Wednesday, the city settled with Robinson and Nelson for a symbolic $1 each and a promise from Mayor Jim Kenney to create a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs. Separately on Wednesday, Starbucks settled with the men for an undisclosed sum and an offer of a free college education. Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner, Richard Ross, also publicly apologized to the men.

But the apologies and settlements don’t resolve the issue for Muhammad. They say the arrests are just the latest in a seemingly endless series of examples of how people of color, especially black people, are often treated in Center City. And why so many find it an emotionally draining, if necessary, place to be.

‘Extraordinary’ racial disparities

Nearly half of all the jobs in the city — 42 percent — are contained within the business district’s well-tended blocks of offices, shops, restaurants, bars, and theaters, according to a recent report from Center City District, a business improvement organization that provides security, maintenance, and other services in the neighborhood.

The billions in public and private dollars spent transforming the area into an economic engine and pocket of prosperity within the nation’s poorest big city haven’t managed to solve enduring racial divides.

Most of the people who live in Center City are white. The average household income is $117,607, compared to a citywide average of $58,372. In predominantly black sections of the city, household incomes tend to average out lower, rarely breaking $40,000. And when it comes to policing in Center City, the disparities are just as stark.

Police data collected and analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania show “extraordinary” racial disparities when it comes to how often police stop black people in the neighborhood.

During the first half of 2017, the police service area that includes Rittenhouse Square had the highest racial disparity in the city, according to the ACLU. Blacks accounted for 67 percent of the stops while comprising only three percent of the population there. Citywide, African-Americans make up 43 percent of the population.

In another section of the 9th Police District, blacks accounted for 84 percent of the stops, while comprising 16 percent of the population.

“[African-Americans] are obviously viewed with greater suspicion by police and perhaps by residents,” said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “I don’t discount the idea that as we saw in the Starbucks incident, the police are responding to complaints that are themselves suspect from business owners or residents who are white.”

Those stats actually represent progress. The number of police stops in the area has gone down dramatically in the last four years, following the settlement of a 2010 lawsuit alleging that Philadelphia cops were disproportionately stopping and frisking African-Americans and Latinos. The court settlement demanded the city take steps to ensure that people weren’t being stopped on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

But Roper says the Starbucks incident shows the department still has work to do.

“We think it’s part of the same problem: police officers not exercising their judgment in a way that says the only apparent crime here is someone being black.”

In the aftermath of the arrests at Starbucks, Police Commissioner Ross has pledged to investigate pedestrian stops in the area of the store. And the department is finalizing a policy for how officers should respond to trespassing calls in the future.

But questions remain about how to solve a problem so embedded in the fabric of a community.  Inspector Altovise Love-Craighead leads the Central Police Division, responsible for patrolling Center City. She declined to discuss the Starbucks incident or the ACLU data.

When Love-Craighead talks about her priorities, she focuses on keeping Center City safe for commuters and tourists.

“Keep it doing what it’s supposed to do. Keep it so the kids can go to school and then go home. Keep it so that workers can go to work and leave and go home. Keep it so the area is nice enough so that folks can come down and enjoy whatever sights they want to see,” said Love-Craighead, who is black

‘Like walking on eggshells’

But making Center City feel safe for visitors and people coming downtown to work or study doesn’t necessarily mean it will feel safe for everyone.

“Part of the violence of this space is that a lot of these folks can be here and not feel unsafe,” said Shani Akilah, who, along with Muhammad, co-founded the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, one of the group’s that protested the Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square in the days after the arrest of Nelson and Robinson.

By comparison, Akilah said being black in a “white space” like Center City requires hyper-vigilance.

“You’re constantly checking to see who’s around you. You’re constantly making sure that you’re not doing anything that could get the attention of a police officer … It’s like walking on eggshells,” said Akilah.

Shani Akilah Robin was one of an estimated 50 people protesting the controversial arrest of two black Starbucks patrons at the chain's Rittenhouse location on April 16. (Bastiaan Slabbers/For WHYY)
Shani Akilah Robin was one of an estimated 50 people protesting the controversial arrest of two black Starbucks patrons at the chain’s Rittenhouse location on April 16. (Bastiaan Slabbers/For WHYY)

The Starbucks arrests weren’t the first conflict to erupt in Center City over who belongs there.

Last year, for example, there were protests when the city briefly banned people from sitting on walls inside the park. Nearby neighbors had complained about loitering, kids smoking pot, and the number of homeless people there.

Ross acknowledges there’s a problem that goes beyond what happened at Starbucks. He says that’s why his officers go through implicit bias training and why his department is working on the new trespassing policy.

But Abdul-Aliy Muhammad isn’t convinced the department’s response will change anything for people like them. More substantial action is needed, they say, and that is unlikely.

“In order for it to be different, it would mean that we would need radical change. And incremental steps, reform measures, is not going to fix the system,” Muhammad said. “There’s no argument that I have found that makes me have peace at night, that makes me not wake up at four in the morning and really struggle with being to be on this planet.”


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