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Moral Outrage Erupts Over Police Officers Being Asked to Leave a Starbucks

Some compared it to last year’s arrests of two black men at a Starbucks, but the incidents are radically different

starbucks logo on a sign outside Photo: Grand Warszawski / Shutterstock

On July 4, six police officers walked into a Starbucks in Tempe, Ariz., paid for their orders, then stood near the entrance of the store to drink their coffee. A white, male customer reportedly expressed discomfort to a barista at seeing the group of white police officers standing there, and according to a Starbucks spokesperson, the barista, after initially telling the customer that the officers were regulars, asked them to move to a different part of the store.

The Tempe Officers Association wrote on Facebook that the barista told the officers that a customer “did not feel safe” due to their presence and asked them to leave or move out of the customer’s line of sight. “Disappointed, the officers did in fact leave,” the post continued. “This treatment of public safety workers could not be more disheartening. While the barista was polite, making such a request at all was offensive. Unfortunately, such treatment has become all too common in 2019.”

That last sentence is most telling, rehashing the Blue Lives Matter movement that has emerged in recent years as a counter to Black Lives Matter: a narrative that suggests that members of the law enforcement are the real victims of a political climate in which activists protest the police killing of unarmed black people. The Tempe Officers Association’s aggrieved note reflects that sense of persecution, particularly on Twitter, where the hashtag #DumpStarbucks started to gain traction over the weekend, borrowing the phrase from a mock Starbucks logo the law enforcement organization tweeted that depicted a hand dumping a cup of Starbucks coffee.

The right-wing media, conservative public figures, and Blue Lives Matter itself seized on that throughline of indignation, echoing condemnation against Starbucks for the perceived lack of respect. Starbucks quickly issued an apology that capitulated to their sense of injustice: “When those officers entered the store and a customer raised a concern over their presence, they should have been welcomed and treated with dignity and the utmost respect by our partners (employees). Instead, they were made to feel unwelcome and disrespected, which is completely unacceptable.”

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is: It was a little more than a year ago that the arrests of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks attracted national attention and protests over anti-black racial profiling. In that case, too, Starbucks apologized — as did the Philadelphia police commissioner, eventually — then closed more than 8,000 stores around the U.S. for a daylong racial bias training.

This latest Starbucks incident and last year’s are only superficially alike, though. As Eater’s Vince Dixon wrote last year, the arrests of those men — who said they were waiting for an acquaintance to arrive, as people do all the time at Starbucks without being asked to leave, let alone apprehended by the police — highlighted the stark reality of people of color, who “must constantly justify their existence, especially in predominantly white spaces.” The sociologist Elijah Anderson defines “white spaces” by “their overwhelming presence of white people and their absence of black people.” When black people enter those spaces, Anderson writes, they’re often required to show additional proof, like an ID, in a way that “would never be demanded of whites.” When they refuse, things can turn ugly, as can be seen in any number of everyday incidents — barbecuing, eating lunch, walking outside — in which people have been stopped, questioned, arrested, and sometimes killed for simply existing while black.

Blue Lives Matter grew, as journalist Dara Lind detailed for Vox, from the notion that police officers were a persecuted group hated by a radical public and President Barack Obama’s administration. Following two high-profile ambush-style attacks on police officers in which several officers were killed, it metastasized into the idea that “criticism of police officers puts their lives in danger.” Vocal proponents of Blue Lives Matter have made it a “zero-sum” game, taking any slight or “implication that police could do more to help communities of color” as an affront that endangers officers’ lives, even though, as Lind points out, the central tenets of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter — improved police-community relations and officer safety, respectively — are not mutually exclusive. The end result, as historian Matthew Guariglia wrote for the Washington Post, is a coalescing of officers into a group united by a shared camaraderie, accompanied by an increasing sense of “us versus them” in the face of criticism or calls for accountability.

The idea that there is such a thing as “blue lives” conflates a job, which one chooses to do, with race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. It’s a false equivalency — one that has nevertheless gained traction in the country’s governing bodies with bills that would make the police a protected class — that makes the right’s reaction to last week’s Starbucks incident ring disingenuous, when held up against the policing of people of color in public spaces, as in the case of the Philadelphia Starbucks last year, or in the case of the police drawing guns on an unarmed black family in Phoenix last month.

In an increasingly militarized culture that has historically given law enforcement free reign and the benefit of the doubt, often at the expense of the civilians they are supposed to serve and protect, police officers being asked to leave a public space like Starbucks is, at most, an inconvenience. It is an opportunity to consider why some may feel such discomfort around the police to begin with. What it is not is a cause for moral outrage.