The Red and Black 86’ed a cop? But why?

It has been about a month since Red and Black collective member John Langley asked a police officer to leave our café. The media hype has subsided, and most of our friends and foes have found more important issues to tackle. However, we decided to release this written FAQ in order to clarify our position and (perhaps more importantly) avoid repeating ourselves into oblivion.

So what actually happened on May 19th?

Red and Black collective member John Langley was cleaning the beer cooler below the counter when Officer James Crooker entered the café. When John stood up, he was startled to see a uniformed officer standing at the register. At a loss, John did what food service workers are generally trained and expected to do: he avoided confrontation, did not ask questions, and quickly took the officer’s order.

Crooker ordered a coffee to go, and he got a coffee to go.

Although John was immediately uncomfortable, he served the officer in part because he expected Crooker to leave right after paying. John has since regretted the decision to serve Crooker and the confusion created by serving him and then asking him to leave.

When Crooker began to linger and chat with a customer John became uncomfortable. John politely asked Crooker to leave, and Crooker left without incident. After the fact, Cornelia Seigneur (a freelance writer who happened to be eating at the café) complained that the officer should have been allowed to stay. John explained that police make him and many of our patrons and allies feel uncomfortable. John informally polled the other customers, all of whom said that police make them feel unsafe. He and Ms. Seigneur had a polite, 20-minute conversation about the issue.

How did this story garner so much media attention? How did the public respond?

Cornelia Seigneur wrote a blog entry and an editorial for the Oregonian. The story was quickly picked up by several local news outlets, including KOIN 6, KPTV, KXL, KBOO, OregonLive, and the Portland Mercury. To our surprise, national news outlets CNN and FOX also picked up the story.

The story was recounted on internet news sites and blogs spanning the political spectrum, our website got tens of thousands of hits, our following on Facebook nearly doubled, and several pro- and anti- Red and Black Facebook pages were spawned.

We also received hundreds of phone calls, online comments, e-mails, and even postcards and letters sent to the café. Some were negative, some were positive, and some were simply inquisitive. We did our best to field respectful phone calls and e-mails while continuing to manage our vibrant, busy café. And we were busy! During the first week or two after the story broke, long-time regulars and supportive or curious newcomers formed a never-ending line out the door.

But what about all the negative responses? What about the boycott campaign?

We were threatened with a boycott. Busier than ever, we took these threats lightly. The majority of “boycotters” are folks who have never and would never visit a vegan anarchist café. Most live in other cities and even other states.

A few irate locals attempted to disrupt business. We were greeted one morning by a pair of protesters in lawn chairs holding signs reading, “Boycott Black and Red, Buy Dutch Brothers Coffee.” We took a group photo of our collective members standing behind these protesters. A few days later, two protesters loitered for a few minutes, used our bathroom, and then left when it started to rain.

However, we also received countless phone calls, e-mails, and letters full of direct threats of vandalism and violence— an interesting way to express support for law enforcement. Most of these threats included misogynistic, homophobic, and otherwise hateful and offensive language.

In a typo-riddled letter from retired police officers (who claimed to speak for a lot of police), we were accused of being “a little gay,” informed that the cops would never help us in an emergency, and threatened with arrest for “attempting to take in air and space and live in their society.”

This all-too-common response was a bitter (though unneeded) reminder that law enforcement rarely serves or protects marginalized and dissident communities.

But some cops are good people! What if Officer Crooker was one of the good cops?

We received a few letters suggesting that Officer Crooker (who was peripherally involved in the Keaton Otis shooting) perhaps entered the café as an ally, interested in learning about our establishment.

Of course, not all cops beat or murder civilians (although police violence is very common here in Portland). We realize that some police officers choose their profession with honest intentions. There are probably even a few cops who grapple with their power as armed agents of an unjust system, though we have never met one.

But the institution of modern policing is fundamentally violent and oppressive. Many laws serve to protect privilege and property, and law enforcement is unevenly leveled against disadvantaged and / or subversive populations.

Many of our workers, patrons, and allies are activists, queers, people of color, immigrants, and / or houseless. Police and other state agents routinely spy on, intimidate, harass, imprison, and harm members of our communities. It is part of their job. The presence of a police officer in a radical community space makes many of us feel unsafe.

John’s decision to ask Crooker to leave was not personal. On rare occasions, we ask individuals to leave because they are carrying weapons, wearing hateful or oppressive insignia, or making our space uncomfortable for survivors of abuse or violence.

Many other spaces, including social service agencies and non-profits, have similar policies regarding police officers and other intimidating individuals.

But isn’t that discrimination?

We are appalled that John’s decision to 86 Officer Crooker has been compared to racism and other forms of oppression. The fact that Crooker himself compared the incident to Jim Crow-era segregation proves that he is hardly an antiracist ally.

Oppression is generally directed against individuals on the basis of their involuntary or ascribed status (such as ethnicity or gender), and is characterized by systematic, socially supported mistreatment, exploitation, and disempowerment of one group of people by another.

Like all cops, Crooker chose his profession. This choice won him a whole lot of power over other people’s lives. For example, it is unheard of for a Portland police officer to be criminally prosecuted for murder despite the fact that several lawsuits have been won against Portland Police for unjust killings. Many lesser examples also demonstrate the license and power enjoyed by police officers. The flip side of this power is the fear or contempt of those who have suffered police repression and violence.

As activists and members of other marginalized communities, we have been made to feel unwelcome, assaulted, or violently removed (sometimes by the police) from spaces we wished to occupy. Our poor and houseless neighbors are regularly asked to leave other establishments or public spaces due to their physical appearance or lack of money.

Those who are concerned about discrimination should worry more about the unjust treatment of those with relatively little power.

Okay, but if you want to build community and share your ideas, you need to be more tolerant! Don’t you want to create a welcoming space for everyone?

We reject all forms of hierarchy and oppression. In our ideal world, everyone would be able to come together as equals and exchange ideas. However, the world we live in is rife with power imbalances. Inequalities based on ethnicity, nationality, sex / gender / sexuality, and class are deeply entrenched in and enforced through our legal system.

Consequently, a radical activist and a police officer are unlikely to engage in a comradely dialogue— because the latter has the power to arrest the former (or at least prompt increased surveillance and harassment)!

A police uniform (complete with a taser and a gun) is a powerful symbol of state repression, injustice, and violence. An officer’s presence is often enough to provoke paranoia and fear in many civilians— especially those who are disproportionately affected by police misconduct.

Until we live in a just society, we will strive to prioritize the needs of folks who are made invisible or uncomfortable, ousted, or disempowered in most other spaces.

So do you have a policy against serving on-duty police officers?

Until May 19th, cops had only attempted to enter the café twice. In both cases, they tried to question customers about crimes and were asked to leave when it became clear that they had no probable cause. So we did not have a policy against serving cops when John hesitated and then made a quick judgment call. We have since decided against serving on-duty cops. This decision was a result of collective members’ concerns and feedback from other members of our community.

But you are a business! Don’t you need the police?

Fortunately, we have never felt that we needed to call the police. We have built a strong network of neighbors and other allies who are willing to help our workers and community members feel safe and supported. Our ultimate goal is to participate in community-based alternatives to the police. We will not condemn anyone who chooses to call the cops in an emergency, but we also know that cops sometimes only escalate dangerous situations.

Whoa. . . so where can I read more about opposition to the institution of police or about alternatives to the police?

Here are some links to get you started!

Opposition to police:

The Demand For Order and the Birth of Modern Policing
, a zine by Kristian Williams

Our Enemies in Blue
, a book by Kristian Williams

Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States
,  a book by Jules Boykoff

A Podcast:

Jules Boykoff, author of Beyond bullets, discusses the attempts by the federal government and the mass media to suppress dissent in the United States. Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue, discusses police brutality and misconduct. Both authors respond to questions from the audience.

Alternatives to police:

So there are actually published scholars, respected activists, and whole communities who oppose the police?

Yes. We received encouraging letters, postcards, e-mails, and visits from animal rights activists, environmentalists, social justice organizers, workers or volunteers at radical spaces, and ordinary folks from all over the Portland area. Our allies in the houseless community were particularly supportive.

We were swarmed by appreciative customers during the weeks following the media circus. Many of our long-time regulars and newcomers went out of their way to thank us for creating a safer and more comfortable space for activists and members of marginalized communities.

So, as Ms. Seigneur asked. . . where is a cop to get a cup of coffee in Portland?

Well, just about anywhere else. But it is worth noting that the Portland Police Association has their own bar, where they only serve cops and their families and friends. From what we hear, it is up to the bartender and patrons to 86 anyone who might not fit the bill. We are guessing they mainly serve booze, but they probably keep a pot of Folgers on, too.


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