If You’re Not Enraged Enough to Act, the Starbucks Arrest Video Is Just Black Trauma Porn

There’s only one humane response to the arrest of two innocent Black men at a Philly Starbucks — taking a stand wherever and whenever you witness racism. Without that commitment, you’re just a voyeur.

Starbucks logo via Wikimedia Commons

To be Black in America is to be, as renowned scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois once put it, a problem.

Black people have forever lived in a society that finds every reason to presume fault in our daily lives. Whether we’re carrying a cell phone, a bag of Skittles, or a toy, innocent actions can lead to our untimely deaths at the hands of law enforcement. For me as a Black man, the difference between being somewhere one minute before the wrong time and one minute after can be the difference between life and death. This is what institutional racism looks like: It’s more than just white people calling us niggers and explicitly saying “no Blacks allowed” — it’s their complicity in allowing our lives to be devalued and debased by those in power.

So I was not surprised to hear that two unarmed Black men were arrested by the Philadelphia Police Department inside a Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square last Thursday for allegedly occupying the premises without purchasing anything — despite the fact that we never hear of white patrons being arrested for doing the same thing. I was also not shocked that after a video of the incident went viral, the men were released without being charged with any wrongdoing and Starbucks corporate apologized not just once, but twice. It almost goes without saying that I had already expected Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross to defend the six police officers who arrested the two men by saying on Facebook that “they did a service that they were called to do.”

This is how casual and predictable racism has become engrained in our everyday lives — a regularly scheduled program that includes an unfortunate act, the timely filming of it, and an immediate backlash that dies down once the cameras do.

But as the social amnesia and cognitive dissonance of white America once again began to flood social media newsfeeds, this recent act of racial profiling left me numb. It’s just another week and another video I have to watch of Black people either being killed, arrested, or facing harassment by law enforcement. When I saw those two men remain silent in that Starbucks video, I felt the anger that was most likely brewing inside them: They were now two more victims of Black trauma porn being exploited for the highest number of viewers online.

What Rittenhouse Square resident Melissa DePino probably didn’t realize when sharing that controversial video on her Twitter account was that she was adding to a long line of troubling visuals of Black people being marginalized for public consumption. Although her efforts may have been well-meaning, the video’s impact trumps those intentions by proving yet again that Black people must be filmed in acts of distress in order for their pain to be validated. Type “police shooting video” into Google and you’ll find countless stories of unarmed Black people being killed by police on camera. Yet, despite the millions of views such videos typically get (DePino’s Starbucks video on Twitter has more than 10 million views as of Monday morning), none but a tiny fraction have ever acted against the abusive system being exposed.

And this is where the true tragedy lies: For all of the public outrage, those in power have yet to do a damn thing to move the needle on addressing the issues that cause this ceaseless racial profiling. What happened at Starbucks is more than just two innocent Black men being arrested, but the inevitable outcome of an unchecked system of racial bias on the part of local law enforcement.

“I am heartbroken to see Philadelphia in the headlines for an incident that — at least based on what we know at this point — appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018,” Mayor Kenney said about the arrests. While his words may have been sincere, Kenney’s actions on similar issues have been less than stellar. During his “progressive” mayoral campaign, Kenney promised to end stop-and-frisk police searches, given that they had a undeniable history of mostly targeted Black and brown men. Once elected, Kenney backpedaled and hasn’t really done much since.

While many elected officials are now weighing in with statements on the Starbucks arrests, how many of them are actually going to stop seeking political campaign contributions from the Fraternal Order of Police? And how many Philadelphians are now going to stop supporting candidates who are aligned with institutions that are complicit with racial profiling policies?

It’s time to stop watching the torture of Black people with wide eyes, closed mouths, and passive inaction — all of us need to find a determined sense of urgency to unapologetically disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression for good. If a controversial arrest video of two innocent Black men at a Philly Starbucks doesn’t compel you to start taking immediate action, you’re just a voyeur. Even worse, you’re a coward who would rather sit and indulge in an instant shock reaction off the backs of Black people’s suffering than actually do something.

I’m mad as hell right now — as any human with an ounce of decency should be.

As I wrestle with the anger of having to beg for recognition of my humanity from those who would rather that I “show” than tell, I reflect on the words of W.E.B. Du Bois yet again: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” I will no longer let the double-consciousness of living in a racist city stop me from being an angry Black man, because I’m entitled to feel this rage without the cameras rolling.