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From Starbucks to Waffle House: American Society Devalues Black Lives

A police car sits in front of a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., on April 22. Four people died after a gunman opened fire at the restaurant that day. (Mark Humphrey / AP)

Every now and then seemingly disconnected incidents occur around the nation that, taken together, coalesce into a clear social pattern. Events of the past couple of weeks paint a deeply disturbing picture of the perils of being black in America, beginning with the now-infamous police arrest of two African-American men at a Philadelphia Starbucks and ending with two horrific incidents at separate branches of the Waffle House chain, one of them deadly. When people question the label adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement, countering, “Don’t all lives matter?” they are seemingly blind to patterns of anti-black racism all around us.

The most violent of the series of recent events was the mass shooting at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tenn., last Sunday that claimed the lives of four young people of color. Clearly Black Lives did not Matter to Travis Reinking, the suspected shooter, most of whose victims from the April 22 incident were black. Reinking, like so many other white men suspected of causing horrific violence, managed to be captured alive and unhurt. In contrast to the care police showed this alleged mass murderer, law enforcement officers far too often demonstrate that Black Lives don’t Matter when they shoot black men in the back simply for carrying a cell phone, as was done to Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Calif., or when they fire a hail of bullets at a black man in a parked car, as was done on April 5 to Diante Yarber in a Walmart parking lot in Barstow, Calif.

Reinking roamed free for more than a day before he was found by police, who took him to a hospital before booking him at the police station on charges of massacring four people. Contrast that description with how police treated Yarber after they shot him: Yarber’s autopsy revealed that he “died from choking on his own blood as police delayed getting him medical help,” making clear just how little his Life Mattered compared to Reinking’s.

After Reinking was charged, the judge in his case showed a familiar disregard for the Black (and one Latino) Lives lost at the Antioch Waffle House when the suspect was initially booked on a $2 million bond—which meant he could have paid a portion of that bond and walked free. The judge in the case only revoked the bond following a public outcry.

Had the Waffle House shooting suspect been Muslim or black or both, we would likely have seen the word “terrorism” bandied about from the very start in both major media outlets and on President Trump’s Twitter feed. From Trump’s refusal to address the incident and considering how little speculation has occurred in the media questioning the motives of this white anti-government perpetrator in his targeting of black and brown folk, we can only conclude that there are racial double standards permeating our society, making necessary the assertion that Black Lives need to Matter.

Reinking would have slaughtered many more people had he not been stopped by James Shaw Jr., an African-American. Were Shaw an armed white man who used his gun to stop Reinking, there might have been no end to the political hay that Trump and the National Rifle Association would have made of the scenario. Instead, there has been a deafening silence from the outspoken president on Shaw, whose life-risking actions contradict the NRA’s favorite fantasy scenario of a “good guy with a gun.” But none of this should surprise us, as neither Trump nor the NRA have demonstrated any real respect for Black Lives.

The other Waffle House incident, which took place in the neighboring state of Alabama on the same day as the Antioch shooting, offered up yet more evidence of anti-black racism with the incredibly disturbing arrest of Chikesia Clemons by multiple male police officers late at night. As with the Starbucks episode, after Clemons complained about being charged extra for plastic utensils, she was deemed so dangerous by the establishment’s staff that the police were called. In the videotape of the incident, Clemons was seated, composed and clearly unarmed when an officer sat down next to her. Within seconds three male officers were tackling her to the ground, threatening to break her arm, exposing her breasts in a manner tantamount to sexual assault and even, at one point, choking her.

It is a scene so disturbing that it could come out of Jim Crow’s segregationist America. It is hard to imagine police officers ever treating an unarmed white woman with such savagery. And yet the police department in question has determined that its officers did no wrong and confirmed our collective suspicion that to them Clemons’ Life simply did not Matter.

The same weekend as the two Waffle House incidents, five black women playing golf in Pennsylvania found themselves at the receiving end of a situation similar to the Starbucks arrests. The women were golfing at a course in a mostly white town in York County when the club’s white owner, together with some white patrons, decided the women were not playing fast enough and called the police. Perhaps because it was broad daylight, or because there were five of them, none of the women was physically assaulted. But the black women got the message: Their Lives don’t Matter.

White America has been calling the cops on Black America for as long as there have been cops—and for as long as there has been a White America. American police are more than capable of becoming powerful and explosive weapons wielded against anyone considered too unruly, too uppity or simply too black. White Americans need to understand that when they call 911 on a black American, they may have just summoned that person’s judge, jury and executioner. They need to understand that police will not treat black Americans with the same courtesy that they treat white mass murderers.

Black Americans understand only too well that when they are massacred, there is great reluctance to address the racist motives of their murderers, whether police or vigilantes. Worse, there is little done to prevent such future crimes. The events of the past week have proved what we’ve all known all along—that in America, Black Lives still don’t Matter.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Sonali Kolhatkar

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