“Get out of my store!”
An employee was yelling at a customer when I got in line at the sandwich shop. This is one of my regular lunch stops, so I’m fairly certain it’s not part of their customer service. At the front of the line, a man yelled back.
“Why am being discriminated against other customers? Is it because of the color of my skin?” He’s a twenty-something black man in workwear clothing with his phone in hand. Like me, he probably came here for lunch often. “I’m going to put this on Facebook! Why did you discriminate against me?”
“I don’t need a reason—I’m telling you to get out!”
The employee, a white woman around his age, yelled at the man while taking other customers’ orders. I simultaneously felt uncomfortable with the situation and impressed with her ability to multitask. That’s dedication.
The bystander effect had silenced the rest of the patrons in the restaurant. Even as I think back, I’m not sure what I could have done.
In good conscience, I couldn’t take one side or the other without knowing how the episode started. Even if I did, would I insert myself into the argument? Would I tell them to calm down? Is this a police matter? No matter how I thought to intervene, it would add fuel to the fire.
I briefly considered leaving, but I decided to stay for two reasons:
- I should be a witness in case the police are called.
- I want a sandwich, dammit.
The match continued back and forth. He wanted a reason why he was being turned away and she said she didn’t need one. It was as productive as Congress.
After a few more rounds of yelling, she explained that he was staring at his phone, being inattentive, and holding up the line when it was his turn to order. He was rude to her and her customers and she didn’t have the patience for him.
He wasn’t satisfied with her answer. He was convinced it was a racial issue and continued to interrogate her. He wanted to capture the right moment on film to confirm his accusations. Most of all, his live stream needed to result in vindication.
But that moment never came.
The man stuffed his phone back into his pocket and stormed off. The situation never escalated and, more importantly, I got my sandwich.
As I ate, I reflected on what happened. Can a restaurant deny service without disclosing a reason? Is live-streaming an incident the best way to react in that situation?
I think it’s fair to kick out a rude customer, but is it fair to not tell customers why? Sure, it’s private property, but the shop is open to the public. If a customer says or does something wrong, notifying them may help correct their behavior in the future.
I spent the rest of my lunch Googling the law. By the end of my sandwich, I felt like a restaurant lawyer.
Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer.
The key piece of legislature in this case is the Civil Rights act of 1967, which makes it illegal for restaurants, a public accomodation, to refuse service based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Not only is it morally wrong for someone to be refused service based on race, it’s against the law.
According to LegalMatch, restaurants can refuse service to those “who are unreasonably rowdy or causing trouble.” So, to answer my own question: it is unfair to refuse service to a customer without giving a clear reason. Additionally, it doesn’t help the employees in any way and may even invite a potential civil rights lawsuit.
Essentially, the employee has the right to refuse service, but she did it in a way that could have caused more trouble than necessary. As always, clear and honest communication prevents and solves a lot of problems. If she said, “I’m not going to serve you because you’re ignoring me and everyone around you,” the man may have interpreted it differently. Or maybe not.
So far, we can see how the employee could have handled the situation better, but what about the customer?
When he sensed the slightest hint of racism, he whipped out his phone to live-stream on Facebook. He knew that racial discrimination can result in a lawsuit that would require evidence. With the push of a button, he produced a time stamp, a location, proof that they were both there at the same time, and online witnesses. All he needed was a record of the crime.
At this point, I’m not sure how to feel about live-streaming a dispute. Let me preface my argument with this: I believe that social injustice persists when we quietly ignore it. However, I have a questions about this method of live-streaming:
- Is the situation out of context?
- What happened before the stream?
- How is the streamer presenting the narrative?
If we ignore these questions, a live stream could incite an online witch hunt. We’re innocent before proven guilty, right? We shouldn’t conclude facts based on an emotional response. We all have a right to due process.
I understand that tensions were high and he felt wronged, but I also think he should have walked away when the employee explained why she ejected him. By then, he had plenty of video evidence for a lawyer or the media if he chose to pursue the issue. If he stuck around any longer, he could have ended up with more problems than a sandwich denial.
Thankfully, he left before police could arrive to escalate the conflict. There are too many news stories of bad things happening when American police officers respond to tense situations involving black men. NFL players kneel for a reason.
As someone of Filipino descent who grew up in rural America, I have a good nose for sniffing out racism. I didn’t sense that the employee was acting through bigotry. She sounded frustrated because someone held up up a busy line during the lunch rush. I also overheard her saying to a coworker that he comes in regularly and often slows the line because he’s staring at his phone.
Keep in mind that it’s easy for me to analyze the situation as a bystander. I’ve never been kicked out of a restaurant or anywhere else for that matter. The shock from it would scramble my thoughts and I’m sure discrimination would cross my mind at least once.
Although that afternoon was uncomfortable for everyone involved, I chalked it up as a learning experience. In fact, I’m still trying to learn from it.
I continue to struggle with the idea of using a live stream to record an incident. As opposed to a video recording, a live stream creates an instant public record. If I’m recording a law violation, my gut instinct is to share the video with a lawyer before I show it to the world. Is there a responsible way to live-stream a conflict? Is it a good idea at all? I also suspect that streamers can accidentally incriminate themselves unless they know exactly what they’re saying and doing.
I hope the restaurant employee and the man were eventually able to clear the air. From my perspective as a bystander, the core of their issue was a communication breakdown, which is a shame. Racism is still a problem and hasty accusations don’t help anybody.
We’re all on this planet together. Life is too short for us to divide ourselves. And our sandwiches.