Why We Shouldn't Trivialize the Starbucks Arrests

The story of the two black men arrested in a Starbucks should be an opportunity to listen to others’ experiences and to examine our preconceived notions.

The arrests of the two men quickly received nationwide attention. They had asked to use the Starbucks restroom but were denied because the restrooms were for customers only (which is a common restriction). They then stayed at the Starbucks without making a purchase; they said they were meeting a third friend, who hadn’t yet arrived.


A Starbucks store manager eventually called the police because they “refus[ed] to make a purchase or leave”; they were subsequently arrested, which another customer filmed and posted on social media. Now the Starbucks CEO has apologized and announced all 8,000 Starbucks stores will be closed on May 29 so employees can participate in racial bias training, while the manager who called the police no longer works for Starbucks.

There is a lot to unpack here.

The anger at the CEO and the entire company is entirely misplaced, as are any proposed Starbucks boycotts. The one employee has already lost her job; Starbucks is attempting to make amends for the mistake; and the CEO seems genuinely upset, as evidenced by his Tuesday appearance on CNN with Don Lemon.

Nevertheless, frustration with the entire situation is understandable.

It does not appear the two men were disruptive, loud, or rowdy. It was an overreaction to call 9-1-1 (!) to report two men in broad daylight sitting in a Starbucks without making a purchase. Using an emergency hotline for such purposes is irresponsible, and this was not an appropriate use of our police force.

Moreover, the response by the police seems over the top. They certainly had discretion in how they could have resolved the situation. And within three minutes of the police’s arrival at the Starbucks, they requested backup and a supervisor — all for two men, sitting at a table in a coffee shop.

And after being arrested, the men were detained for eight hours before they were released with no charges. How is this justice?


As a proponent of limited government, it enrages me that two men were arrested and held for eight hours all for waiting in a coffee shop without buying anything. It concerns me if people do not see a problem with the enforcement arm of our government behaving in this fashion.

It is possible more details will emerge, but based upon the currently known circumstances, including video in which other customers are heard saying “they didn’t do anything,” it appears none of this needed to happen.

Some may argue that being in a store without purchasing anything is trespassing, so it’s their own fault they were thrown out, and that being arrested is a fair outcome for trespassing. But such a view lacks nuance, and neither the store nor the police behaved reasonably.

Starbucks had every right to ask them to leave. But how often does that happen at Starbucks, a brand that has intentionally encouraged the idea that it is more than a coffee shop and that it is somewhere to linger, work, or set up meetings?

How many of us have sat in a Starbucks waiting for a friend or date and have not been asked to purchase something or leave? How many of us have sat in a Starbucks for hours after finishing our drink or food, working on laptops or reading, without being asked to leave? How many of us were ever even asked to leave, let alone accused of loitering or had the cops called on us?

Perhaps most significantly, how many of us were even noticed?

According to the American Psychological Association, “people have a tendency to perceive black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men.”


So even though these two black men were simply engaging in similar behavior as countless others every single day, they were picked out and then deemed to be threatening.

The most heartbreaking part of the video was the look of resignation on the two men’s faces. They didn’t even try to resist their arrest.

Edited to add: Watch the video of the arrest below.

And what would have happened had they resisted — or even hesitated or expressed disbelief that they were being arrested for simply waiting in a coffee shop? Would the police have used force? How much? Would the police have shot them?

It might seem melodramatic to think about the police opening fire in a coffee shop simply for refusing to leave, but men have been shot at for holding cell phones, for admitting to a concealed carry permit, for answering the front door during a SWAT-ing, for being twelve years old with a toy gun, for having a broken taillight, and for crawling down a hotel hallway and hitching up their pants. They have been shot in a hotel hallway, in a park, at their front door, in cars, in their own yards, while being held down by multiple officers, from behind, and while running away.

So it’s not outside the realm of possibility. And, if the police had opened fire, what would the reaction have been? Would some have argued that it was appropriate to shoot two men, perhaps fatally, for allegedly trespassing in a coffee shop?


And what would have happened if there was no video? Would people have assumed that the manager and the cops were acting appropriately? Would many have assumed the two men had done something to provoke either the manager or the police?

Yes, these are “what ifs.” And we don’t know for sure what the reaction would have been. But it’s worth thinking about. It’s worth reflecting upon. It’s worth examining our own prejudices and behavior.

Starbucks’ day of diversity training may ultimately be ineffective, but the company is at least attempting to address an issue that some conservatives either don’t actually see or prefer not to see.

David Marcus at the Federalist criticized the negative reaction to Starbucks’ response and observed, “conservatives have an important role to play in the conversation about race in America, and we are failing.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I applaud Marcus for stating as much.

However, Marcus doesn’t go far enough. He writes that “the color of a person’s skin tells you nothing about him [or her] and should not be the basis of any judgment you make about him [or her].” This is truly a good-intentioned endeavor. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.

Implicit bias and disparate treatment are real. Two similar individuals of different races can be treated differently for the same behavior by other individuals, by society, and by their government. It’s not enough to preach color blindness — because it is necessary to see color in order to understand systemic racism and individual experiences.

It is difficult to understand what we cannot experience or have not experienced, whether it’s due to our race or our gender. That is why it is so important to listen to the experiences of those around us, rather than decide in advance that their experience must be inaccurate or their perspective must be faulty. This isn’t being “woke.” It’s simply understanding that many people may have a different experience than you do.


South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott, who has been pulled over seven times in one year as a black man driving a new car or in a certain neighborhood, has explained the importance of listening to others regarding their personal experiences:

Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of other, does not mean it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear, it simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable…

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio has discussed this in terms of Black Lives Matter before:

It is a fact that in the African-American community around this country there has been, for a number of years now, a growing resentment toward the way law enforcement and the criminal justice system interacts with the community…

I have one friend in particular who’s been stopped in the last 18 months eight to nine different times. Never got a ticket for being stopped — just stopped. If that happened to me, after eight or nine times, I’d be wondering what’s going on here. I’d be upset about it. So would anyone else.

Yes, slavery is over. Jim Crow laws were overturned. “Separate but equal” policies and segregation are no longer in place. The civil rights movement succeeded in demanding the rights of Americans of color be recognized and respected. And yes, our nation has come a far, far way, and there is much of which to be proud. But that does not mean racism cannot exist or the effects of racism do not still linger. And it does not help matters when we pretend otherwise. We must face the problem and work to provide conservative voices regarding 21st century issues.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.


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