Three Cheers for the Cop Watchers at the Starbucks in Philadelphia

Though stories of every day police brutality and racist policing permeate the news, let’s take a minute to cheer on cop-watching and all forms of direct action to resist this ugly element of US civil society.

In particular, witness the nearly perfect Cop Watch technique on display in the recent Starbucks racially-motivated arrest that sparked a nationwide media storm in response. Cop watching, a form of direct action and movement popularized by libertarians and other community activists, consists in monitoring and videotaping police activity in the interest of holding the police accountable. The released video reflects cultural permeation of the concepts Cop Watch and other groups promote.

From the first image, we see a white colleague loudly asking, “What did they do? This is ridiculous.” Bystanders, especially those with social privilege, should intervene in a situation to encourage the police to de-escalate or move away. The cellphone video itself is well positioned, showing the relatively empty shop, the arrest, and the interaction with the bystander while maintaining a close distance. We would also note that this video was released in a timely manner to news outlets and advocacy groups to provide maximum effect.

Contrary to Reason and Robby Soave’s verbal shrug of ‘well, this won’t change anything, Starbucks’, this event further reveals the assumed criminality of the black body in commercialized, ‘public’ space. A quote from the Washington Post notes,

‘It raises all kinds of questions. How long can you be on a property? Can you not browse at these stores now? Who gets to determine whether you’re acting as a patron or as a trespasser?” said Jason D. Williamson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, referring to the disproportionate targeting of African Americans. “It goes to the judgments that are made not only by the police but by store owners who ratchet up the level of suspicion depending on what you look like.”

“For many African Americans, particularly young black men, the pervasive scrutiny means never letting down their guards while shopping, dining or gathering with friends”, Williamson said.

Indeed, the small actions of two individuals can be said to have caused Starbucks across America to forgo profits for an entire day. Doubtless this action will also inspire more Cop Watch teach-ins, self-defense classes, and community push-back against regressive policing and commercial space policies.

Our networked society, as big business should know, can and does rapidly force boycott action on perceived violations of held values. Stated differently, when someone pulls out a cellphone to document, racism can become bad for business.

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