For some Americans, there’s something terribly mundane about the news of two black men being arrested in a Starbucks for — basically — not buying anything. No one was physically injured, bystanders called out the ridiculousness of the situation, and police eventually released the men. It is a better outcome than injury or death. For anyone who has experienced being black while playing, driving, walking, napping or simply standing still in a store, there is a mix of anxiety and relief at the outcome in this instance. We know that any interaction with the police can turn deadly.
Yet for many Americans, for whom calling the police for help is a natural impulse, the incident is shocking: an appalling example of overreach in a business that has sold itself as a place to gather. Those people live in a different America, one where you can go anywhere you like and spend as much time there as you wish. There’s little need to worry about being falsely accused of shoplifting at a deli, dining and dashing at an Applebee’s, or fraud at a department store. This America trusts police officers, and the other does not. In the other America, where the Starbucks arrest took place, the assumption is always guilty until innocence is proved.
In the other America, where your skin color is a threat, every public space is fraught with the possibility of mistreatment. Police can torture or frame you for everything from drugs you never had, to grabbing for a weapon you never touched, to raping and killing a woman you never met — and there is little you can do about it in the moment. At best, you lose only hours of your day and not years of your life. And it doesn’t stop at black people. It spills over into other communities, the officers involved aren’t always white, their victims aren’t always black, but the impact is always awful.
In one America, skin color brings with it an assumption of innocence, of harmlessness. Yet criminals live in that America, too. They do things like kill nine people in a church and still get arrested alive. In one extreme example, they abuse children, are reported repeatedly, and are even convicted of child abuse — but are allowed to keep custody right up until they kill those children. The Hart case is an example of the dangers of assumed innocence. Had Jennifer and Sarah Hart been subjected to the same scrutiny as the family members of the deceased children whom the couple had adopted, it’s possible that those children would still be alive and that their lives wouldn’t have been filled with deprivation and emotional and physical abuse. There is a real danger for every community in discarding common sense based on skin color.
Innocent until proven guilty is a key tenet of the American justice system, but not necessarily for public opinion. For many, the first response to the Starbucks story is, “There must be more to this.” Because when you live in that America, the police are on your side. They can be wielded like a weapon, deployed against a man holding an unloaded BB gun because you insist that he’s a threat; they can be trusted to believe that you are the victim, even when your story makes no sense.
The response to stories of police misconduct is often, “Well, who are you going to call when you’re in trouble?” And that question is indeed the obvious one if you’re from the America where contact with police isn’t likely to lead to your abuse, arrest or even death. But when you can spend nine hours in a jail cell for the crime of sitting in a Starbucks while black, then what good are police to you? What good are they to the surrounding community when they make a show of arresting innocent people but solve less than 50 percent of murders?
These aren’t questions with easy answers; this isn’t a problem that can be solved in one op-ed or a dozen. Two men getting arrested for being in a Starbucks while black isn’t going to change the world, but it is a glimpse into a fundamental flaw in how our country sells itself: as a land of opportunity, as a place where equality is accessible. The real question is how long will we keep pretending that all of us get to live in that America.
Mikki Kendall is a writer based in Chicago.