Outrage Over Arrests At Philly Starbucks Fuels Twitter Conversations

Apr 22, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 12:38 am

The arrests of two black men waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks continues to fuel conversations about implicit racial bias in public spaces. Many of those conversations begin with "I'm not surprised."

"When I have to move through predominately white spaces I'm always on alert and my anxiety is always high because I don't know what's going to happen at that moment," says Elon James White.

White is a writer, performer and founder of This Week in Blackness. He was one of the many people who used social media to share their experiences where everyday situations became suddenly menacing. Here are some more of those stories.

"I got on Twitter and I wanted people to understand because I was seeing and lot of white people who were expressing just shock. I need people to understand that it's the cumulative effect of knowing everywhere you go that you aren't welcome," says Ijeoma Oluo, a speaker and writer from Seattle. Oluo shared statistics about how black and brown youth are often criminalized from as early as preschool. Those statistics point to the issues behind a lot of these incidents, she says.

"I had visited with some middle school students in St. Louis, Mo., and these were black students and Hispanic students telling me about a field trip they had to take. And then they were talking about how on their way back they stopped at a subway and the teacher had handed out, you know, chips and drink to all of the kids, and then they each had like five dollars to go get a sandwich," Oluo says.

"And they went up they were getting a sandwich and the Lady at the counter decided to accuse one of the boys of stealing his bag of chips ... and she was threatening to call the police."

Even after the children's teacher approached the lady at the counter and vouched for him, she insisted that the boy had stolen the chips, Oluo says.

"They were saying even that this brand of chips wasn't even sold at this location," she says. "And she still didn't want to believe them. And I wanted to people to see that what happened at the Starbucks is part of this emergent pattern."

Shay Stewart Bouley from Maine is the executive director of Community Change and the creator of the blog Black Girl in Maine. She tweeted a story about an incident that happened to her while she was waiting for an Amtrak train. She was the only black person standing on the crowded platform, she says, and she jostled a white woman standing near her.

"She just looked over at me and gave me this nasty look," she says, "and it's 8-something in the morning and all I want to do is get on this train. And then she says out loud to her traveling companion 'this woman is in my space.'"

William Ketchum III is a journalist based in New York City. He tweeted that about a conversation that is had ubiquitously between parents and children in the black community about how to interact with police. His father had a similar conversation with him about visiting businesses.

"He always told us that no matter how long or short our visit is to a business to always always buy something that way we buy something," Ketchum say. "Then, we hopefully won't be perceived as a threat to steal something or as a threat to rob the store."

Ketchum says he has spent a lot of money buying drinks or appliances that he didn't even want to ensure he wouldn't be perceived as a threat to a business.

"Anytime I go to a gas station, not only do I buy something but if I need to use the bathroom right when I get there I'll tell the clerk at the counter, 'Hey I do plan to buy something but I need to use the bathroom first.' "

It's similar to the way that he would speak to a police officer, he says.

"You tell him, 'OK, I'm reaching for my wallet. My wallet is in my back pocket. I'm going to reach in my back pocket now to get my wallet.' ... I guess you can say that it's paid off because I'm alive and I haven't been to jail."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The arrests of two black men waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks continues to fuel conversations. And many of those conversations begin with, I'm not surprised.

ELON JAMES WHITE: When I have to move through predominantly white spaces, I am always on alert. And my anxiety's always high because I don't know what's going to happen at that moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Elon James White. We found him on Twitter. White was one of the many, many people who shared their experiences where everyday situations became suddenly menacing. And here are some more of those stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IJEOMA OLUO: I got on Twitter. And I wanted people to understand because I was seeing a lot of white people who were expressing just shock. I need people to understand that it's the cumulative effect of knowing everywhere you go that you aren't welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OLUO: My name is Ijeoma Oluo. And I am a writer and speaker in the Seattle area. And I shared, you know, first a couple of stories talking about the statistics behind a lot of this, of how black and brown youth are criminalized from preschool on. And I had visited with some middle school students in St. Louis, Mo. And these were black students - one Hispanic student - telling me that a field trip they had taken.

And then they were talking about how on their way back, they stopped at a Subway. And the teacher had handed out, you know, chips and drink to all of the kids. And then they each had, like, $5 to go get a sandwich. And they went up. They were getting their sandwiches. And the lady at the counter decided to accuse one of the boys of stealing his bag of chips. And the students all said he didn't steal. We got this from the teacher. No. She insisted that he had stolen. And she was starting to call the police. The teacher even came up and vouched for him and said, I'm the teacher. I handed out these chips. And they were saying even - that these brand of chips wasn't sold at that location. And she still doesn't want to believe them.

And I wanted people to see that what happened at this Starbucks is part of this larger pattern, of knowing that even at a coffee shop, which is supposed to be kind of the definition of relaxing, being comfortable and hanging out. For black people, you can't let your guard down.

SHAY STEWART-BOULEY: My name is Shay Stewart-Bouley. I currently live in southern Maine. I'm the executive director of Community Change Inc. And I'm also the creator of the blog Black Girl in Maine. The story that I tweeted the other day is something that actually happened to me in real time. And it was just one of those sort of throwaway things I - you know, I had a two-hour train ride on Amtrak. And it was a situation that - you know, we're sort of all lining up or as much lining up as you can do when there's, like, a big crowd of people on a train platform.

And I guess I may have, like, jostled or bumped into this, you know, white lady who was probably about my age, which would be in her mid-40s. And she just looked over at me and gave me this nasty look. And you know, it's 8 something in the morning. And all I want to do is get on this train. And then she says out loud to her traveling companion, this woman is in my space. And I thought, her space? Like, we're on a crowded train platform. Like, no one has any personal space here.

And then it was interesting because, you know, the conductor announced the order, which was, you know, the groups get on first and, you know, if there's anybody in business class. And I'm, like, yes. I'm in business class. And then the woman just kind of looks at me and is, like, oh - you know, has this, like, nasty look on her face. And it was just a moment in light of what happened at Starbucks of, oh, this is sort of like that being black in a public space. I should mention I was the only black person on the train platform that morning.

WILLIAM KETCHUM III: My name is William Ketchum III. I am a journalist based in New York City, born and raised in Saginaw, Mich. My tweet was saying that even though most black people have a conversation with their parents about how to interact with police to avoid being arrested or killed, my father also told me and my brother something similar when it comes to visiting businesses. He always told us that no matter how long or short our visit is to a business to always, always buy something - that if we buy something, then we hopefully won't be perceived as a threat to steal something or as a threat to rob the store.

I have spent so much money buying drinks I don't want, buying beverages I don't want, buying appliances that I don't want just so I'm not perceived as a threat. Any time I go to a gas station, not only do I buy something but if I need to use the bathroom right when I get there, I'll tell the clerk at the counter, hey, I do plan to buy something, but I need to use the bathroom first. Can you show me where the bathroom is? And then I'll be right out. It's sort of like the same way that you speak to a police officer and tell him, oh, hey. I'm reaching for my wallet. My wallet is in my back pocket. I'm going - I'm reaching for back pocket now to get my wallet to give you the identification that you just asked for. I guess you can say that it's paid off because I'm alive, and I haven't been to jail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was William Ketchum III. We also heard from Elon James White, Shay Stewart-Bouley and Ijeoma Oluo.

Next week, we return to the Call-In. That's our segment where we hear from you. Teachers in Arizona have voted to have a walkout this week in the wake of strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma. Teachers across the country are drawing attention to issues like low pay, lack of resources and more funding for public schools. We want to hear from you. Are you a teacher, an administrator, a parent struggling with these issues? What's it like in your school district? What are your main concerns? Call in with your experiences at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, where you're from and your phone number. And we may use it on the air. That's 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURDOROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.