If there are two things I know, it’s Starbucks and the struggle to find public restrooms in a big city. You may have heard about the two men, as yet unidentified, who were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks this week for what is being deemed “resistant loitering.” When the two men, who I shouldn’t have to tell you, are Black, walked into the Starbucks, they asked to use the bathroom. They were denied and told that they had to make a purchase.
When they told a barista that they were there for a business meeting and sat down anyway, someone determined the men were a threat and called the police. In a video of the arrest, shot by a patron who then put it online, you hear a woman say ‘I saw the whole thing and they didn’t do anything.’ In another video, the man who they were scheduled to meet with, indignantly questions the arresting officers, which on the tape looks to be about six or more, about the reason for the arrest.
Although it looks like the incident took place in the afternoon, the man were detained into the wee hours but released without any charges.
I know that particular Starbucks. When I was completing my B.A. in 2015, I used that location as my study hall. It had been renovated, along with several other Starbucks in Philadelphia to be meeting and hangout friendly, with two wide tables, and comfy leather chairs with outlets for freelancers, telecommuters and students to collaborate.
The 18th and Spruce location is smack dab in the middle of Rittenhouse Square, the poshest zip code in Center City, bordered by Rittenhouse Park and two of the city’s most high-end restaurants.
That, and the intersection of gentrifying and rapidly changing Philadelphia is what these two young brothers walked into that day. Downtown Center City is currently a perennial construction zone. Meds and eds, or medical and education facilities and the tech industry, are turning a city that has, since its inception, been a home for many solidly middle-class an affluent Black people, into a haven for hipsters and carpetbaggers escaping New York’s exorbitant housing costs.
While many African-Americans work, eat and sometimes play downtown, the vast majority of African-Americans in Philadelphia live in the gentrifying neighborhoods in the Northwest, West, South and North segments of the city. African-Americans do have a history of accomplishment in Philadelphia, but there is also a permanent underclass victimized by a decaying public school system, pockets of abject poverty and a persistently high rate of gun violence.
Rittenhouse Square remains a wealthy, white enclave. Just down the street, the patrons of Barclays Fine Dining or Parc and Rouge, pull up Maseratis and Bentleys to sit outside drinking fine wines and eating high-end foods on sunny days. Many are blissfully unaware of the problems Black men face in America, as those two demographics rarely interact with each other.
It’s not that it’s a rarity in Philadelphia to see two casually dressed brothers having a business meeting, it’s that if a conflict arises and they are not obsequious and obedient, there’s a chance that someone will find them suspicious. Consider that this incident took place just because the men asked to use a public restroom, a frustratingly challenging task in certain cities (Hi, NYC). Starbucks has been one of those places where bathrooms are clean, accessible and plentiful.
But in recent months, Starbucks locations have changed over to a bathroom code system that is sometimes only available with a purchase receipt. This is because, according to a Philadelphia-based employee familiar with company policy, a purchase to use the bathroom has long been a requirement. It just has not been enforced.
It’s a requirement meant to solve the persistent problem of homeless people and addicts who use public restrooms to wash and/or do drugs, an issue reflected in customer feedback to Starbucks. This employee has had to call police when an addict OD’ed in a Starbucks bathroom. The employee says that Starbucks acted on that feedback by changing the system of bathroom access, something that forces baristas to make snap decisions on who can and who can’t get an access code.