This week, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for “loitering.” According to GMP’s Christopher Norris, who spoke to the management, the men weren’t given any warning prior to the police showing up.
Two videos have surfaced so far showing the altercation. The shorter one, posted on Twitter by Melissa DePino, shows a confused white man trying to intercede on behalf of the black patrons. When he suggests that they’re black men being arrested just for sitting there, an officer says, “Yes, that’s it.” The man persists, asking what they’ve done, but the officer fails to give any more information.
Meanwhile, a longer one, posted to YouTube by Bendwench Gal, shows two other white men sitting by idly while events unfold literally feet away from them. One watches, sipping his drink as if he’s watching a mildly entertaining TV show. Another pretends to be so focused on his work that he doesn’t notice three police officers standing over the two black patrons.
When the police finally move in for an arrest, the two white men who had been calmly disengaged from the situation casually get up and move away from the immediate area. The longer video ends with the two black men being walked out by the police. In the shorter video, one of the white men can be seen looking annoyed as he moves out of the way.
During the course of the longer video, quite a few people (most of them white) pass by. Most of them try to avoid the scene, although there is some evidence of confusion and discomfort.
Here’s my question and my challenge for the white readers: What would you have done?
Are you the white person who steps in, ignoring the potential risk to himself in order to defend the men because he could see that there was an injustice occurring?
I’d like to think that would be me, but I can’t say for sure until I’m tested. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I would say anything, not at this point. I’m still too comfortable in my white privilege.
I will admit that a few years ago, as a teacher in Detroit, I watched a boy getting arrested outside the school I was working at. Another teacher and I acted as a perimeter, holding the students back and out of the scene. I felt the police were using excessive force against the boy, based on what I knew.
I was torn at the time. Afterwards, I realized how I must have looked to many of my own students: A white man supporting the police. I had chosen a clear side. When my black associates say they don’t trust “whitey,” I think of that moment, among others. I could be as supportive as I want to my black students, but that afternoon, when I was confronted with putting my job on the line to do what was right, I stood on the wrong side of the thin blue line.
That was a few years ago. I’ve changed considerably since then, grown quite a bit, woken up some more. But can I say, definitively, that I’d confront police the way that this man did? No, I can’t.
And while that man is being treated in some spaces like a hero, it’s important to note that he’s the person they were waiting for. He’s not stepping in for some strangers; he’s defending some friends.
Are you the person who supported this by saying that the men hadn’t done anything? Or the white person (possibly the same one) who posted the video on Twitter? I think that’s me, now: Nervous to step forward on my own, but willing to stand up if someone else stands up first. I know what’s wrong and what’s right, but I’m still not sure how far I want to endanger myself.
I’d like to think that’s where a lot of white people are, right now. We realize racism is bad, we want to live in an equal world, but there’s risk. We find ourselves asking: Is it worth the risk?
That’s part of white privilege: The ability to decide which risk we’re willing to take.
In Rochester Hills, MI, where 90% of the residents are white, a black teenager was shot at in broad daylight about the same time as the Starbucks incident. What was his crime? He had missed his school bus, didn’t have his cell phone, and was lost. He approached a house that he thought looked safe. A woman inside the house complained about “these people” choosing her house. A man fired his gun as the boy ran off. If the man’s safety hadn’t been on, the boy might well be dead right now.
In a Facebook discussion of this story, I saw a black man question the boy’s story. Why? Because, he said, black boys should know better than to approach strange houses. Because his mother should have taught him better.
We live in a country where black parents are expected to teach their children how not to be killed by white people. My father never talked to me about that. White privilege includes the comfort of choosing when to make race a discussion.
Are you the white people who pretended to barely notice? Who didn’t step in, even when there was a white person taking the lead? Who casually moved out of the way when the arrest was happening?
Of course, we can’t say what those men were thinking. Perhaps they too were outraged at the discrimination. Perhaps they didn’t care at all. Perhaps they’re tired of “these people” sitting around in “our” coffee shops, and they’re glad something was finally being done. We don’t know.
Because we don’t know, we’re left to our suspicions, and my suspicions are that they weren’t overly upset about it. This is why it’s so often said that silence is complicity: If we say nothing, if we do nothing, then we’re leaving it up to others to interpret our actions as they will.
How could someone of good conscience sit in that situation and do nothing but ignore it? Keep your head down. Don’t get involved. It’s not my problem.
But wait, what about the other black people who are present but don’t intercede? Why am I not holding them to the same standard?
If you asked that question, you’re missing the point. Why should they have to be the ones to intercede? Why should the white folks be allowed to idly watch while the black folks endanger themselves, just as they always do?
While black protesters take a knee, it is time for white protesters to stand up and say: Enough. No more, not on our watch.
Photo credit: Getty Images