From sit-ins to picket lines, restaurants and cafes have been America's front line for social justice since civil rights became a movement. And clearly that's not stopping. Just last week we saw Starbucks forced to reckon with its management's bias after two young black men were arrested and paraded out in cuffs just for waiting for a colleague before ordering. Smashcut to this weekend, where Waffle House found itself feeding the social justice food chain dialogue -- in more ways than one.
First off, we tip our caps to 29 year old James Shaw Jr. who stepped up in a way few could imagine, saving lives at 3:30AM on Sunday by rushing a gunman wielding an automatic weapon in the Waffle House in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, while the killer was reloading. The gunman, still at large as of this article's publish, had already killed four in the restaurant and wounded several others, including Shaw Jr. Our hero is actually reluctant in accepting the title of "hero," though all witnesses and local police insist it's the only thing to call him. (Further to the point: Shaw's set up a GoFundMe for the victims' families, making sure the moment is about their loss rather than his heroism.) "I hope we can bring violence in all facets—not just gun violence, but all facets of violence—to an end," Shaw said at a press conference.
At a separate location of Waffle House, in Mobile, Alabama, a 25-year-old black woman was pulled to the ground by police, exposing her breasts, while she was arrested for disorderly conduct. The incident transpired after the woman, Chikesia Clemons, was charged an extra 50 cents for plastic ware, and saw her order entirely canceled when she told the clerk she had received plastic-ware free-of-charge at that location the night before. Clemons then asked for the manager's information and was waiting for it when the Saraland Police showed up. The following arrest and resistance included Clemons yell "You're choking me!" and police yell "I'll break your arm, that's what I'm about to do!" You can watch here:
Clemons was arrested and released to her mother on $1,000 bail. Police are aware of the social media response and video footage, and are preparing a response. Meanwhile, a Waffle House spokesperson said there is reason to doubt Clemons's version of events, and that they are conducting their own investigation before making further statement because evidence "strongly supports the actions taken by the Saraland Police Department." (More on the story at AL.com.)
Just like Starbucks, Waffle House positions itself as a place that is welcoming to people of all backgrounds. (Look, if you're going to serve carbs and syrup 24 hours a day, you better be down to serve all members of the human condition.) But even without corporate jargon of inviting all castes and creeds, food chains and cafes are the front lines of the justice movement because they are public places, open and inviting to the public by Constitutional law. Simple as that.
Now, it may be a lot to expect profit-minded businesses to become activistic crusaders for equal treatment. And in fact, it's entirely unnecessary: Let alone the Constitutional requirements of equal treatment, let's just break down the case in dollars and cents: This is the age of social media and iPhones.
There's no more room for accidental racism. These moments will come back to haunt you.
You'd think that the civil rights movement would have reminded these folks about what's at stake, if only for their bottom line.
So this is a call to all proprietors of all manner of restaurants and coffee shops, diners, cafes, and all else. If you're more interested in serving your short-sighted view rather than the public, you aren't long for this world. Boycotts affect bottom lines. The minorities will be the majority by 2049. If you won't do it for your better angels, do it for your angel investors.
Starbucks' CEO has shown one example of corporate accountability, by apologizing everywhere, personally taking responsibility, and closing 8,000 outposts of the coffee chain nationwide on one day in May to train employees about unconscious bias.
But a call to all others in the industry of serving foods to the public, be they management or CEO, the check-out counter or the third line cook: What are you going to do?