By Brian Connolly
I ran up the sidewalk to the Starbucks on Navy & Main near Venice Beach, California. It was still dark out at 6:10 AM, but I had to get to my new job with the Salvation Army. I’d been sleeping on the sidewalk nearby for the last few months, homeless. I’d lost my job through no fault of my own at the height of the great recession. Inside, I put my huge double sleeping-bag pack under the table where I usually sat. Though a straight-A from the University of Delaware, I definitely “looked homeless.” I walked up to the counter and ordered my usual sausage sandwich, grande coffee and LA times when the new manager there, a white girl called Rebecca informed me that my status as a Starbucks customer had changed. She told me that because of a “hygiene issue” that from now on I would be buying their products there but that I had to immediately leave the store – I could no longer sit with the rest of the patrons. Time stopped. She was not reserving the right to refuse service – she was making my patronage of a Starbucks restaurant conditional as condescendingly and tritely as if she was explaining to “colored” at the counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 that that was “just the way it is.”
Though I’m white, from an affluent family, a highly educated and articulate Phi Beta Kappa because I “looked homeless” she tried to inform me that I and other “homeless” individuals would be adhering to this Jim Crow-style condition in the future. It was how things were going to be when I returned and was starting right away – I could buy Starbucks, Inc. product, but I had to immediately leave.
The Jim Crow laws were racial segregation laws enacted in the U.S. between 1876 and 1965. Most of them were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Laws such as: blacks couldn’t drink from the same water fountains as whites, blacks had curfews, that blacks could spend their money in “white” restaurants, but there’d be conditions such as they had to enter through the back door or they could order to-go, but they couldn’t actually sit with the other patrons. Some of the most hated, blatantly racist, adhorent laws ever enacted – and Rebecca the manager of a Starbucks on the Venice/Santa Monica border was using the same reasoning to clear the “homeless looking” people from her store.
I’d never experienced discrimination before personally in my life, never, but there was only one word for what I began experiencing from that moment on. Rage. Burning, seething, caustic rage. I refused her “conditions” and went down the street to the other Starbucks and spoke to the manager there, a young Latino girl, as nice as could be. When I explained the conditions that Rebecca had stated earlier, she was flabbergasted. Refuse service, sure, but to tell someone that their money was good but that after they paid that they weren’t a full customer? With most “homeless looking” people actually being people of color what could be more racist, more discriminatory. Flash back to 1960 in North Carolina. The similar dynamic was in play back then as Rebecca was trying to initiate in 2013. White restaurants definitely wanted blacks’ money. Blacks might constitute 30% or 40% of a small restaurant’s revenue, just like the homeless make up a great deal of business in this equation – but with Jim Crow there were always “the conditions.”
Enter Starbucks, Inc. – under analogous pressures due to the crimes of the banks, the homeless population of LA and other cities has swollen to crises proportions. When you’re homeless you learn the faces of who’s homeless from the homeless centers and churches. You see them “out in the world” later in the day and maybe they look homeless – sometimes not. Many live out of their cars. The first thing I began noticing after I became homeless myself was just how many people at the library – and at inexpensive restaurants like Starbucks – were homeless. The homeless are big business to Starbucks, Inc., but there is NEVER an excuse to bring back second-class status to any American under such circumstances. Refuse service, sure.
Refuse dignity to any human being, never.