The “positive outcome” of the Starbucks arrest won’t save us because it didn’t save Chikesia Clemons
The 2 men—awarded a $2 settlement and promises of help—are presented as models all Black people terrorized by police should emulate
By L.N. Lewis
I visit a certain website almost monthly, reading names and cross-checking news stories. It is a stark spreadsheet, a database of nightmares reaching back to May 1, 2013, titled killedbypolice.net.
For April 2018, it lists 418 names. Among them: Shukri Ali Said, aged 36; Elijah James Smith, 20-years-old; and Brenda Jenette Harrison-Bumbray, 50. Three names do not appear among the dead, and that may be purely by chance: Donte Robinson, Rashon Nelson, and Chikesia Clemons.
Robinson and Nelson, and later Clemons, survived two separate and now infamous incidents of law enforcement profiling and arrest viewed through very different lenses of gender and race, and of media, corporate, and law enforcement response.
On April 12, at 4:35 p.m., Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two 23-year-old entrepreneurs and friends, entered the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks in Philadelphia. Nelson asked to use the restroom; the manager replied it was only for paying customers. Unbothered, Nelson sat down with Robinson. A Starbucks employee then approached the pair asking if they were ready to order; they explained they were waiting for a business associate.
As they waited, Starbucks manager Holly Hylton was making a 911 call. “I have two gentlemen at my café who are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” she told a Philadelphia police dispatcher at 4:37. At 4:40, a radio dispatcher reported that at “1801 Spruce at Starbucks a group of males” was “refusing to leave.” By 4:44, Philadelphia police had entered the Starbucks and were calling for a back up officer and a supervisor. Said Robinson: “I was thinking, they can’t be here for us.”
Several customers spoke up in protest during their arrest. Melissa DePino, who had been working at her computer near the men, recorded it on her phone. Robinson and Nelson’s business associate Andrew Yaffe arrived during the arrest and demanded to know the reason they were being detained. The two men also politely asked why they were being arrested as they were led from the Starbucks to squad cars. Their calm masked fear, perfectly rational fear of “becoming unresponsive during arrest” like 39-years-old Michael Snyder, of a “tussle” resulting in a shooting as in the case 25-year-old Sanchez Lowe, of a “mysterious death” in police custody like 43-year-old Mark Parras.
Ten days after the Starbucks arrests and a little more than a thousand miles southwest, 25-year-old Chikesia Clemons and her friend Canita Adams stood at the counter of Waffle House restaurant in Saraland, Alabama. The Root reports that Clemons had ordered food and requested plastic cutlery to go with it when the server told her there was a fifty cents charge. Clemons pointed out she had ordered food at the same location the previous night without the charge. The server cancelled her order. “Clemons then asked for the contact information for the Waffle House district manager.”
Clemons’ mother told the Root, “They didn’t even ask her to leave; she was waiting for them to give her the district manager’s card so she could file a complaint on one of the waitresses.”
WH Capital, L.L.C. and Saraland Police tell a different story, which was repeated by the Washington Post: “Officials said the woman and her friend were acting belligerent inside the Waffle House in Saraland, north of Mobile, drunkenly yelling profanities at restaurant employees and threatening to return with a gun and ‘shoot this place up.’” Closed circuit TV footage shown during a press conference revealed Clemons, Adams, and an unidentified male sitting at a table. Saraland detective Collette Little narrated the footage: “The situation escalates between the patrons at that table and the employees.” But what that escalation consists of isn’t explained.
After a 2:30 a.m. 911 call by a Waffle House employee, Canita Adams’ cell phone video shows three cops approaching Clemons, one cop putting his hands on her right wrist and her neck. “Clemons describes a disagreement with a store employee that triggered the police response. She soon appears to realize that the tube top she is wearing is slipping, and she raises her arms to cover her bust line.”
“You’re not going to grab on me like that, no,” says Clemons.
A cop throws Clemons to the floor, straddles her, steps over her; a second cop grabs her right shoulder and wrist, and they flip her and drag her as if she were livestock.
“What are you doing?” cries Clemons.
“I’ll break your arm, that’s what I’m about to do.”
The strapless top of her dress has been pulled to her waist, exposing her breasts, and one cop is bent over her, still trying to tear her dress past her hips. She turns herself on her front and is thrown on her back again. A cop locks his arm around her neck and then grabs her by the throat.
“You’re choking me!”
Thrown facedown a final time, her wrists are plastic-cuffed behind her. Throughout the entire ordeal, the third cop stands over them, silently watching. Arrested at approximately 2:45 a.m., Chikesia Clemons must have been overwhelmed by the same terror faced by 71-year-old Betty Lemoine; by 17-year-old Grizelda Hernandez and her one-year-old son Dominick Hernandez, all killed by law enforcement on April 11.
Robinson and Nelson say they were not read their rights nor given any reason for their arrests. There is no evidence that Clemons had her rights read to her either. During the nine hours Robinson and Nelson sat in jail, their charges, which had not been disclosed to them—“trespassing and creating a disturbance”—were dropped. Charges against Clemons—“disorderly conduct and resisting arrest”— were not. She sat in jail until her mother could pay her $1000 bail later that morning.
The divergence between the arrests of the two men and the woman widens further. For Robinson and Nelson, the customary denials and dismissals—Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross: “(Officers) were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen, and instead they got the opposite back”—were swiftly slapped down. Video showed the men quietly leaving the Starbucks in handcuffs, but apparently the testimony of white people matters most. Writer and witness Melissa DePino took to television, print, and social media to defend the two men, and Andrew Yaffe, the real estate developer who had planned to meet with Nelson and Robinson, also continued to speak out on their behalf.
Their advocacy was important, but it’s also just one more example of how racism is only racism when it is called out by white people.
By April 19, the Police Commissioner apologized to Nelson and Robinson. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and executive chairman Howard Schultz also flew to Philadelphia to personally apologize and engage in “constructive conversations” with the two men.
The result? Symbolic settlements of $1 each for Robinson and Nelson, a promised $200,000 for one year of funding of a high school entrepreneurship program (financed by the city of Philadelphia), “help” with Robinson and Nelson completing their bachelor’s degrees, and a 4-hour racial bias training for Starbucks’ more than 175,000 U.S. employees.
On Good Morning America, Robinson stated, “Looking at how we took a negative and turned it into a positive, that’s really all we want. Not to focus on the negative, but just to focus on positive outcome.”
Within hours of her arrest, Chikesia Clemons would also be international news, the blurred image of her naked torso available for viewing on websites from YouTube to Russia Today (RT) to the BBC.
The sense of unreality Donte Robinson experienced from being targeted, profiled, and arrested must have struck Chikesia Clemons with even greater force. Her arrest, preceded by physical attack and sexual assault, would provoke the same coping strategy anyone adopts when facing terror.
This cannot be happening
Physical and sexual violence abruptly causes you question reality, your five senses, and your sanity.
This cannot be happening to me
The possible and probable shatter, give way, and you fall through to what you thought was impossible. If two police officers can stride into a restaurant, drag you to the floor, strip you, strangle you, and threaten to break your arm, why couldn’t they rape you in front of booths of customers? Why couldn’t they choke, beat, or shoot you to death?
We’ve seen plenty of killings on camera: Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile. As Rashon Nelson said, explaining his fear, “You never know what’s going to happen.” Nelson also said of arrest, “[But] you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class.”
Racists, misogynists, and trolls would say Clemons “should have followed orders,” but cops, good, bad, and indifferent, and every other torturer knows that a body under duress cannot obey orders. When a cop puts his hands on your throat and leans all his weight on it, your brain will shut down, and your body will rebel. Your body will fight for its life.
What Chikesia Clemons endured, fighting for her life on video, on that restaurant floor, would have snapped even the stoic composure of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. But the two men—with their $2 settlement, one-year entrepreneurship program, and promises of help—are now being presented as models that all Black people being terrorized by police should emulate.
Unlike Starbucks, Waffle House has issued no apologies and hosted no racial bias training seminars. WH Capital, L.L.C. and Saraland Police insist Chikesia Clemons was drunk and threatening without producing video/audio evidence or blood alcohol data. Tallahassee-based lawyer Benjamin Crump took on Clemons’ case and presented witness testimony challenging previous statements from the corporation and the police.
One witness stated a Waffle House server told Clemons she should “know (her) place.” Two witnesses said Clemons “did not appear to be drunk and was speaking clearly and concisely before and after officers arrived.” The witnesses deny that there was any mention of a weapon. The two witnesses, both white women, said they were too frightened of the white officers to intervene.
Still, late on July 23, 2018, Judge Mark Erwin ruled that Chikesia Clemons was guilty of “disorderly conduct and resisting arrest” because “…the facts of the case met the legal definitions required to find a person guilty.”
Erwin sentenced Clemons to her court costs, $400 in fines, and ten days in jail.
The violent, racially motivated incidents at Waffle House restaurants are not unique. There were the killings of four young people of color at their Nashville location by “Sovereign Citizen” Travis Reinking. A May 8, 2018 incident when servers attacked 22-year-old Anthony Wall with homophobic slurs and then called 911. Phone video once again revealed a strangulation after a Warsaw, North Carolina cop, whom all of media seemed unwilling to identify, choking Wall.
The stated goal of Robinson and Nelson was a “positive outcome.” Media and corporate America seemed to embrace the pair, but did their $1 dollar settlements change how law enforcement and corporations would interact with Black people in the future? Would those $1 settlements shape future behavior towards Black people in Whole Foods, McDonald’s, or Apple Store, when facing NYPD, LAPD or Baton Rouge Police?
Robinson stated that, “I want to make sure that … this situation doesn’t happen again. So what I want is for a young man or young men to not be traumatized by this and instead motivated, inspired.” But the frequency of police administered beatings, tasings, chokings, sexual assaults, and shootings only seems to be accelerating. U.S. law enforcement killed 418 people in April 2018. In May 2018, they killed 524.
It took Chikesia Clemons to make a statement not of accommodation and conciliation, but of self-defense and self-assertion. On May 20 2018, she marched to Saraland city hall, leading hundreds of Black, Brown, and white women and men.
“Life begins with us. I’m standing up for all of us women.”
Show solidarity with Chikesia Clemons at www.gofundme.com/justiceforchikesiaclemons