Waiting while black

People gather outside a Starbucks on 18th and Spruce streets in Philadelphia to protest Thursday's controversial arrests of two black men at the store. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for WHYY)

People gather outside a Starbucks on 18th and Spruce streets in Philadelphia to protest Thursday's controversial arrests of two black men at the store. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for WHYY)

Waiting while black.

That’s what I’ll be doing until there’s justice for two black men who were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a friend. Apparently, the men tried to use the restroom without first making a purchase. A manager told the men the restroom was for customers only, and asked them to leave. When the men refused, police were called. And as white customers recorded the incident, incredulously demanding to know what the men had done to warrant such treatment, the black men were removed from the store in handcuffs — for Waiting While Black.

Like Driving While Black, and Shopping While Black, Waiting While Black is apparently frowned upon, because racism does not afford basic humanity to those who look like me, even within the confines of a coffee shop. And though the indignities those two men suffered in Starbucks paled in comparison to the videotaped killings of countless unarmed black citizens by police, the incident went viral for one simple reason. It was wrong.

It was wrong for a Starbucks manager to call police when two black men dipped their toe in the ocean of privilege that allows whites to languish in Starbucks without ever making a purchase. It was wrong for police to arrest those men and cart them off to jail. It was wrong for at least one official to try to justify the officers’ actions.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

It’s wrong that no one’s been fired yet, so I’m still Waiting While Black.

I waited while the outrage poured in over social media after millions viewed the video of the men’s arrest. I waited after Starbucks issued a statement saying they were “reviewing the incident with our partners…” I waited as the backlash grew louder with each moment, until finally, someone in leadership spoke up.

protesters outside Starbucks
Protesters Dell Meriwether and Toni Bowers talk to a passerby outside Starbucks at 18th and Spruce where two black men were arrested. (Solomon Jones/WHYY)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement that rightly said the incident “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.” He went on to say that Starbucks’ apology “is not enough.”

Eventually, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson issued a statement that called the incident “reprehensible,” later adding,“I hope to meet personally with the two men who were arrested to offer a face-to-face apology.”

And yet, in spite of those statements, I’m still Waiting While Black. Waiting for a black man in charge to express the anger so many of us feel. I thought that statement would come from Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross — a man I respect although I’ve sometimes disagreed with his policies. Unfortunately, Ross, the only black executive in this whole sorry mess, took to Facebook Live and issued a statement that missed the point.

He said the officers involved politely asked the men to leave, called for a supervisor to meet them, and did their jobs by removing the men for trespassing. Then Ross launched into odd justifications that simply don’t ring true.

Ross said a police sergeant had once been refused access to a Starbucks bathroom because he hadn’t made a purchase. But as a longtime Starbucks customer, I’ve seen hundreds of people use the bathrooms without buying anything. None of them were harassed, profiled or arrested.

Ross said his officers were polite and professional, even though the men were not. They should be. Let’s not forget that former Texas Trooper Brian Encinia was fired for rudeness and failure to follow procedure, not because Sandra Bland, the black woman whose car he stopped, was found hanged in her jail cell three days later.

Ross also said the men insulted the arresting officers by referring to their salaries in demeaning terms. While doing so might be considered bad form, belittling someone’s salary is not a chargeable offense.

Perhaps that’s why District Attorney Larry Krasner refused to press charges against the men, who were freed under the cloak of darkness after several hours in jail.

Just as those men had to wait for their freedom after being unjustly arrested, I’m still Waiting While Black. I’m waiting for the firing of the Starbucks manager who treated black customers with a level of disdain that smacks of racial profiling. I’m waiting for companies to stop telling us the age old lie that hours of sensitivity training will solve centuries of racism. I’m waiting for the white allies who’ve joined in this struggle to join us in so many others.

Until they do, I’ll be Waiting While Black. But I won’t be waiting in Starbucks.

Solomon Jones
Solomon Jones outside the Chestnut Hill Starbucks where he’s written hundreds of columns and worked on several books. (Solomon Jones/WHYY)

I am boycotting the coffee chain I’ve patronized for the better part of a decade. I’ve written hundreds of columns there, penned several books there, edited video and audio there. But I won’t be going back there until someone is adequately punished for singling out those black men.

I hope that thousands will join me in my boycott. Only then will we all experience the true burden of Waiting While Black.

Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 10 am to Noon on Praise 107.9 FM 

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal