A year ago on April 12, 2018, two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested for trespassing at the Center City Starbucks on 18th and Spruce. They had been waiting for a business associate to arrive and Nelson went to the counter to ask for a bathroom code. Stating that the restrooms were only for paying customers, the manager declined to share the code, and shortly after approached the men to ask if they wanted a beverage. Nelson and Robinson said no. Within minutes, the same manager called the police, who made the arrests.
Starbucks pressed no charges, and within days the company claimed that the manager in question no longer worked at the Spruce store. But the effects of this incident — a clear case of racial profiling — lingered.
Video of the arrests went viral immediately. Protests ensued, and executives at the coffee chain ordered implicit bias training. I worked at Starbucks during the economic recession, when then-CEO Howard Schultz shut doors on Feb. 26, 2008, to retrain baristas on the art of espresso beverages. I sat with other coworkers at 1500 Market Street, reading from a module and practicing steaming milk. When Starbucks decided to devote a similar amount of time and seriousness to racial bias as it had to steamed milk, I figured it would be a stunt — mostly about optics, not substance.
My instincts were confirmed by my friend Charlie Raboteau, who is on sabbatical from his shift supervisor job at a Philly Starbucks and participated in the bias training, where employees were asked to discuss their own experiences with bias. “It felt silly and disrespectful,” Raboteau told me, to have to explain his encounters with racial bias, and justify them as such, to white employees, echoing sentiments from some nonwhite Starbucks employees who told Time magazine last May that they found the training lacking.
A few hours of corporate-mandated training are not the best way to educate folks about racism. But that education is needed, because racial profiling continues, and it can end lives. While Nelson and Robinson made it out alive, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, shot and killed in February of 2012, wasn’t as lucky. It’s time to define the profiling they all experienced by calling it what it is: racialized surveillance.
Violence toward black people can come from state-sanctioned authorities, like the police, as well as people like the Starbucks manager, who, deputized by privilege, seem determined to treat black people as threats. In his neighborhood watch capacity, George Zimmerman took this to an extreme, yet too common, degree: He spotted Martin, followed him, and ultimately shot him. Trayvon was making his way from purchasing Skittles, during a stay with his father’s fiancee. Walking and wandering, as young people do, through structures and streets to make his way home.
Zimmerman claimed he shot the teenager after Martin, who was carrying no weapons, attacked. He was acquitted for the murder of Martin on July 13, 2013. According to Mapping Police Violence, 99 percent of police-involved shootings in 2015 resulted in no convictions for officers. This database also reports that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, with 9 percent more black victims in 2015 known to have been unarmed, compared to white victims.
In and out of law enforcement, there are white vigilantes who see the racialized targeting and harassment of black people — sometimes resulting in their deaths — as their duty. Black people at a barbecue, asleep in a university library, or nonchalantly walking home enjoying snacks can become harassed or dead in moments.
A year after the Starbucks arrest, we must wrestle with how dangerous it still is to move your body through space as a black person. While white people explore spaces with impunity most of the time, black people think of safety planning and avoidance strategies to get from point a to point b.
The people of Philadelphia must do more to ensure that young black and brown people have sanctuary in this city. One-time training, like Starbucks offered, won’t cut it. We need law enforcement policies to ensure black people in public are not constantly followed, or deemed suspicious for doing something as simple as sitting on a bench after dark. And we need others across the city to consider what might happen to a black Philadelphian if authorities are called to police that person.
Racialized policing must be put in its resting place, racist vigilantism must be seen as a form of terrorism, and anti-oppression training with concrete action plans — led by black people — should become an institutional practice for organizations that interact with the public.
Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad was born and raised in West Philadelphia and currently organizes with the Black and Brown Workers Co-op.