There is a lot of outrage at Starbucks and the Philadelphia Police Department for the arrest of 2 black men at a Starbucks for literally doing nothing. This post is not about that. This post is about the time I saw the cops being called on a black man in a Starbucks in Charleston, West Virginia. Please read the entire post before forming your opinions. Also, please note that this is being written as I recollect the incident from my memory, and should be treated that way.
I was in Charleston, West Virginia on work for two months between December (’17) and January (’18). Knowing my disdain for staying alone in hotels, I naturally sought the slightly more likable atmosphere of a coffee shop to stay alone in. Charleston is a beautiful town, but it is not a big city and there weren’t too many options for a coffee shop. I just wanted to sit in a nice, comfortable spot with an internet connection, not be bothered but still have people around me, and be allowed to spend hours together without being questioned.
The Starbucks on East Kanawha Blvd ticked all those boxes in addition to having a great riverside location, and I happily chose that spot. Over the course of 2 months, I went to that store several times – maybe up to a dozen or so. I generally liked the ambiance, and the baristas were friendly and courteous. (I remember once when I forgot to ask for almond milk, they happily remade the drink for me at no extra cost). The crowd generally consisted of either people who came there to study/work/read by themselves or a small group of 2-4 for a brief meetup. I generally spent at least 2-3 hours there on each of my visit, spending my time mostly reading or writing while listening to my headphones.
It was a Sunday (if I remember correctly) afternoon in the second or third week of January. I was at the Starbucks and working on my computer at one of the smaller tables. A black man was also inside the Starbucks and he had a drink with him at his table. The man had a backpack of sorts with him and the condition of his clothes made it appear that he was perhaps homeless. It looked like he had purchased a drink and so was well within his rights to stay at the store – just like everyone else there. And no one seemed to think otherwise.
As time passed, a group of 4 women (in their 30’s or 40’s) came to the store and sat at a round table that was adjacent to where the black man was sitting. They were there for a good hour or so, and they spent their time talking to each other.
Now, prior to the women coming to the store, the man had begun to pace the entire place – inside and sometimes outside. He did not seem to have any specific purpose in his walking around, and did not appear to indicate any kind of threat or harm to the other customers. After the women came in and sat at the table, I remember the man continuing to pace the store. And I distinctly remember him beginning to just stand and hover around the table where the women were sitting. The women, per my recollection, did not seem to pay attention to him and continued their conversation unaffected by his close proximity.
I remember the man continuing to pace the store and/or hover around the table where the women were sitting. I remember him also walking and/or standing close to other customers. (He never came very close to me as I remember sitting far away from his table). This continued to happen for an hour or more.
My overall recollection of the situation then was that of a black man, who was very likely homeless, pacing around the store without any specific purpose and sometimes hovering around a person or group of people without initiating any kind of contact. I do remember him talking to himself on a few occasions without being loud about it.
My personal thoughts at that moment when I saw him was that, firstly, he had every right to be there just like the rest of us. And no one thought otherwise – including and especially the baristas. Secondly, as much as his aimless and continuous strolling through the store was a harmless act in itself, I did wonder how the 4 women at the table felt when they noticed someone just hovering around them and possibly listening in on their conversation.
From a purely objective perspective, if someone was hovering around me while I was at a coffee shop (with or without friends), I would feel uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with the race or economic status of the person who is potentially invading my space. And if it was something that had continued for an extended period of time, I would have brought that to the attention of the store manager. Specifically, I would have told them that the said person was making me uncomfortable and maybe that they were even creeping me out. Again, this has nothing to do with race. I would have made this comment if it was a black man who was homeless, or a white guy who was dressed in a suit and a tie. (Just a reminder – I am neither black nor white nor Hispanic). It is a simple matter of invasion of space in a public location where there is a general expectation of respecting one’s privacy.
These were the thoughts that were going through my mind when I saw the cops show up! I remember there were 2 of them who came in and went to speak to the store manager/barista. They spoke for a few minutes, and by their general body language, it was obvious that it concerned the black man. The man himself was seated at his table minding his own business at this point. After a brief discussion with the store manager, the cops then walked to the man and spoke to him for a few minutes. I could not hear what they were saying specifically, but I definitely remember them being polite and courteous to the man. They must have spoken to him for about 5-10 minutes, then left the man to his table and went back to speak to the store manager. After a brief conversation there, the cops left the store.
The man continued to stay at the store and from that point on, he stopped pacing the store or hovering around the other customers. (I do remember the 4 women having left the store by the time the cops showed up). All the other customers justifiably showed no visible reaction to whatever had happened – considering it (whatever it was) was resolved without any drama whatsoever. He continued to stay at the store well after I left the place.
So yes, a black man was at a Starbucks in Charleston, WV and the cops were called on him. But that is the kind of sentence you would write if all you wanted to do was manufacture outrage. (Well the title of this post got you reading so far didn’t it?!?) If anything, I would say this is a perfect example of how things SHOULD be managed. Let me explain:
First of all, I believe that Starbucks has a policy of letting people stay however long they want to as long as they have purchased a drink. I know this because I have stayed there for hours on end multiple times. In this regard, the black man was not asked to leave at any point of time as he was well within his rights to be there for as long as the store was opened (based on the drink I saw at his table).
Second, I do believe that any customer who is causing any kind of discomfort to other customer(s) should be informed that they cannot do so. And if they continue to do so, then they should be considered eligible for removal from the premises. This is a common sense policy that I believe most establishments have. If this includes the calling of cops, it is still justified. But I do believe that the right thing to do would be to first ask the said person to cease their actions, and have him/her removed only if they do not oblige. In this instance, (and I am speculating here), the black man was indeed told – politely and courteously – that he had to cease his ‘hovering around’ of other people. He obliged and nobody questioned him afterwards.
So yes, I will firmly state that the Starbucks employees and the cops performed their duties in a very appropriate manner without any racial prejudice towards the black man. One can always argue whether the baristas would have called the cops if it was a white guy in a suit who was doing all the ‘pacing and hovering’, or if they would have spoken to the man themselves. But that is a purely hypothetical argument that may or may not provide any constructive insights. I also do not know if the 4 women who, in my opinion, perhaps felt affected by the man’s actions, ever complained to the store manager prior to leaving. But regardless of that, from a purely objective perspective, I would personally feel very uncomfortable having any person of any race just hovering around me and invading my space and privacy.
In this day and age of easy outrage, it is very important to document the instances when people do the appropriate thing and show basic courtesy and respect when needed. This is one such instance and due credit should be given to all those were involved in this situation.