Waffle House, Starbucks, and the unalterable anti-Black, patriarchal violence of newsworthiness
Whenever white people highlight a story, it is always to support anti-Blackness, even if we highlight the same story for different reasons.
“Black Men Arrested At Starbucks Said They Were There For 2 Minutes Before 911 Call” — The Huffington Post
The headlines blaze, sear into your consciousness, don’t let up, suffocate. Eventually they begin to blend together, but each individually shapes you into a better activist, or so you once hoped. Hope is why you spread these stories. Why you shouted them. You hoped to make them matter, even or especially when the characters within them have been proven not to.
Occasionally, that hope is met. This month, two Black men were arrested at Starbucks because they had yet to make a purchase while waiting for a friend to join them for a business meeting. When videos of their arrest went viral, protests erupted around the country, and many pledged a boycott of Starbucks. The brand promptly apologized and promised to close all 8,000 of their national chains for “racial bias training” in May. All because we shouted.
If we shouted at every injustice in Black America, we would be hoarse, voiceless. To be able to shout at all you must have saved your voice for this special occasion. Who decides which occasion is special? What made Starbucks different enough to become news? Could it be the white bystanders testifying on film and in later interviews that the two men did nothing wrong, legitimizing their otherwise dismissable position? Could it be that the men were professional realtors, rather than just some random poor niggas? Could it be that they appeared to be cisgender men, who more easily become symbols for anti-Black injustice?
Was it because they did not resist arrest, that they were “respectable”? “When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it?” one of the men, Rashon Nelson, said in describing why they walked away calmly in handcuffs. “You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class. That was the choice we had.”
But eventually, you realize that we have no choice here; when a story matters more than its characters, the storytellers always get to keep the power at the characters’ expense. And Black characters’ lives do not matter either.
The storytellers always get to tell you why you should listen, what defines “special,” and those reasons always benefit their platform. They emphasize character-victims who are “college graduates” and “peaceful” and “nonviolent offenders,” who, even though they are men and are therefore allowed to be prone to violence, have “class” and do not resist authorities, especially when they should.
You notice how this kind of storytelling still does not bring the victims justice when they are Black. This kind of story is never about justice. “Role model to hundreds of kids” Philando Castile is just as dead and his murderer is just as free, and we shouted. A day of racial bias training will not fix anti-Blackness at Starbucks, or anywhere, and we shouted and shouted and shouted.
And even the fallout from Starbucks will not deter other institutions from recklessly calling police on us just the same. Just days after the Starbucks incident, a video of police officers dragging a Black woman named Chikesia Clemons out of a Waffle House for asking to speak to a manager about a dispute over the cost of plastic utensils, exposing her breasts in the process, began making the rounds.
But this kind of storytelling does remind you that college graduates and peaceful resisters and nonviolent offenders and Black men who submit themselves to authorities are allowed to have stories, and that we should revere them even when it does nothing to save us. This is what media attention in a white supremacist patriarchal world is supposed to do, reinforce the need to give submission to anti-Black patriarchal systems in order to make your story matter, which is all you will ever get in return.
When the assault on Chikesia Clemons hit the internet, there was a much more muted response. The relative lack of shouting is not surprising. She is a Black woman. She was not respectable. She did resist. To tell a story about resisting, the character has to matter. And this type of storytelling was never about that.
As part of their media tour after the Starbucks incident, Rashon Nelson claimed that what happened to him and his friend was “not just a Black people thing; it’s a people thing.” The ignorance of the statement struck many people who had organized around it specifically because it was “a Black people thing” as a slap in the face, and another example of cisgender appearing men betraying us once they get a platform. And it is.
If a cishet Black man is in the news and it’s not because he is dead or dying, he is often there to assist in killing you.
But what happens when we realize that’s all the process of newsmaking ever has been, elevating ideas that are meant to continue killing Black people? What would that say about the liberational politics inherent to the Black women, queer and trans folks who never get these types of stories told about them? About the violence capable at the hands of the few who do? What, even, might we learn from cis het Black men who don’t get these types of stories either, particularly those who are poor and/or disabled and/or incarcerated? What can we learn from all of those who were faced with testifying on an anti-Black record, and who chose silence instead?
“Bemoaning archival silences places the historian in the role of the slave catcher, prowling through the darkness to capture the bodies of those fleeing violence and terror to subject them to bright search lights, interrogations, and all manner of disciplining” — Jess Krug in conversation with Greg Childs
What if we understood that whenever white people highlight a story, it is always to support anti-Blackness, even if we highlight the same story for different reasons? What would this say about the necessity of telling our stories in our own way, on our own terms, without regard for what they do with them, or how they receive them?
When you lose hope in the way the stories you shouted about have shaped the activist in you, when you realize that newsmaking in a white supremacist media system is only ever about making stories matter at the expense of your life, maybe you refuse to shout anymore. But in “Protests aren’t eulogies: Fighting for more than Stephon Clark and his misogynoir”, Chelsea Neason offers us an alternative: “Many people seem to view protests as a means to gain the attention of oppressors. In this view, sympathy and outrage become currency, and demonstrations become breadwinning methods… (but) Effective marches and protests are not bids for sympathy or attention. They are acts of war.”
What happens when we don’t care whether the white supremacist world sympathizes with the two Starbucks men, and it isn’t about whether we sympathize with them either? What happens to our advocacy when sympathy—which this world will never extend to Black queer folk, disabled folk, poor folk, trans folk, women folk to the same extent as others—is never a prerequisite to the work we do?
Wars are not won on stories alone—not the stories of the Starbucks men, or Philando, or even Chikesia Clemons. They are about real lives, which are assaulted by anti-Black institutions everyday, all the time. The politics of war must shape how we regard all these institutions in every interaction at every moment.
It’s not enough to boycott Starbucks, but to also boycott the police, and establish alternatives so that you never have to call them. To boycott the gentrifiers by making them fear you. To boycott all anti-Black institutions by never believing their account of the story, by never needing proof of the Black people they harm, by never giving them more than you have to. Every day is a day you take something from your enemies, or support someone who does. And every moment, every story, is only as useful as how much it takes from them, too.
If we shouted at every injustice in Black America, we would be hoarse, voiceless, but I am learning how not to shout at individual injustice. I am learning how not to shout at the headlines that pile up and snuff out the air I use to yell in the first place. I am learning to shout as an act of war, from the people whose stories will never matter to a white supremacist world. This is how I honor them. This is how I catch my breath.