I read with interest the essay of National Review columnist Kyle Smith about the response of the Starbucks coffee drink company to reports that one of their employees summoned Philadelphia’s municipal law enforcement authorities in response to the presence of two men at one of their Rittenhouse Square coffee drink locations. He writes:
“We can all easily imagine circumstances in which a manager of a coffee shop or restaurant might properly call the police to ask them to remove loiterers. These are places of business. There’s nothing wrong in principle with calling the cops on non-customers who are taking up space. And there’s nothing wrong with police asking people to leave private property where they aren’t welcome, given that trespassing is a crime. When such people refuse, that’s unfortunate, but what can the police do but arrest them?”
I am glad Mr. Smith asked this question, because it’s precisely the question people on both the left and the right should be asking about how we should be expected to deal with one another.
In my late 20’s, I was a graduate student in Providence, Rhode Island. Without expressing any unwarranted prejudice against the people of Rhode Island, it is a den of villainy. Nowhere was this more perfectly expressed than in the taxi industry, which was populated exclusively with the worst people in Rhode Island, and perhaps in all of New England.
If you’re from Rhode Island, then I suppose you get pretty used to the way your taxi drivers abuse their passengers, but if you’re not from Rhode Island, it gets very old, very fast.
One day, I flew into T. F. Green International Airport (named, hilariously, after the guy President Johnson is intimidating in the famous picture of his manhood), and taxis were in short supply. The taxi jockey at the airport insisted on putting multiple people into the same cab in order to move the line along. I was seated with a fellow going to the Providence Marriott, perhaps a half mile from my apartment. After dropping off the first passenger, and being paid by him, the driver continued to my apartment, where I handed him the difference between the final fare and the fare as of the first passenger’s arrival at the Marriott.
The driver was not amused. He insisted that I owed him half the fare to the Marriott, plus the additional distance he’d driven me. When I told him I wasn’t paying him that, he said he’d call the police, and I told him I’d wait up in my apartment.
He really did call the police! And when the police car finally pulled up 20-30 minutes later, I went downstairs and explained the situation to him. The cop patiently listened to us both, and understood both sides:
- On the one hand, why should I pay for somebody else’s trip to the Providence Marriott, which took me out of my way home?
- On the other hand, why should I get a free trip downtown from the airport and only pay for the last half-mile of the trip?
But you know what the cop did? Nothing. He listened to both sides, he understood what both of us were saying, and he didn’t arrest anybody at all.
The police don’t have to arrest anybody
Was I “stealing” from my taxi driver by not paying what he thought I should for my share of my ride from the airport? Maybe!
Were the two Philadelphia Starbucks patrons “trespassing” by sitting at a table for a few minutes before the manager called the police? Maybe!
We can use whatever legalisms we want to describe particular situations, whether it’s theft, trespassing, vandalism, loitering, or jaywalking, without insisting that the police have no choice but to arrest us, incarcerate us, and immiserate us.
They always have a choice, and best of all, they work for us. Which means, like it or not, that it’s up to us to do something about it.