Back a hundred and fifty years ago, when I was in the midst of a totally different career as a touring performance poet, I had a show in Portland, Oregon at a collectively-run coffee shop called the Red And Black Cafe. It was probably the best night I had on the west coast on that tour, and so I’ve remembered the place (and the vegan carrot cake they served) fondly. So I was surprised, a few days ago, to see a Facebook group pop up called “Boycott the Red And Black Cafe”. Who’s got a problem with a bunch of Portland coffee anarchists?
It turns out that the place had actually been making national news for an incident in which they exercised their right to refuse service to a uniformed police officer who’d stopped by for a cup. The Internet, of course, got all huffy about it. That’s what the Internet is for, after all. And I’ll admit that it looks kind of petty – the cop is probably a pretty nice guy, all things considered (most people are, in my experience), and he probably just thought the place looked interesting and was in the mood for a cup of coffee. It is a neat-looking coffee shop. N0 one’s account of the incident had the officer bothering customers or behaving in any capacity other than as a guy who wanted a cup of coffee. So on the surface, yeah, it’s pretty easy to side with the cop and the Internet. The anarchist coffee shop was rude!
But then I was reading my usual round of legal blogs over the weekend, and I started thinking about it a little differently. I read about the case in West Memphis, Arkansas, where a police officer drove 80+ miles an hour through a residential neighborhood, and killed a teenager while doing it. I read about the man in Waukegan, Illinois, who was tasered to death on suspicion of panhandling, and who apparently wasn’t even the guy who did it (not that panhandling is an offense that ought be punished by death). I read those stories, thought back to the dozens of cases I read in the past couple months, about no-knock warrants and people being beaten in Chicago for no reason, and I thought – you know what? Even if it’s petty, I’d kind of rather be able to enjoy a cup of coffee without police officers around, too. And if my goal as the proprietor of a cafe is for my customers to feel safe and comfortable, and I’m running a place that’s frequented by activists who probably read enough news to be aware of the hundreds of instances of police power abuse that have occurred over the past few years alone, it just makes sense for me to refuse them service. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they were about to be tasered or beaten or have their dog killed or whatever.
They talk about a thin blue line, which keeps the police covering for one another in bad situations. Maybe if every coffee shop in the country refused to serve the cops who came in until they started holding each other to a higher standard, we’d finally see equal protection for the police and the people they’re meant to be protecting and serving.