Group Boycotts Starbucks Over Seattle Police Shooting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a city where dot-com professionals have driven up housing prices and edged poor families out of the heart of downtown, the enemy has been identified. It's the Starbucks on the corner.

The city's central district has been at a low boil for weeks over the May 31 shooting of a black man by two white police officers--the second such controversial shooting in a year. There have been calls for citizen boards of inquiry, an end to racial profiling by the police. Rev. Robert Jeffrey has gone a step further, organizing a boycott of the local Starbucks until the coffee company agrees to endorse their campaign at City Hall.

It has seemed an illogical target to some. Starbucks, after all, had nothing to do with the shooting. The company has helped revitalize the decaying central district, hired local people, contributed to dozens of community programs. Its tables at 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street are a beehive of multiculturalism and have served as a model for Starbucks' entry into other urban neighborhoods across America.

To Jeffrey and other activists at the People's Coalition for Justice, that misses the point. In their view, racial conflict in cities such as Seattle can increasingly be viewed through a corporate prism: Private companies recruit new professional workers downtown, displacing the poor; private companies push for repressive police policies to protect their assets.

"African Americans need to wake up and recognize who the villains are in this. The police are hired guns," said Jeffrey, pastor at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. He is leading a small coalition of environmental, union and social justice activists in a controversial boycott that has won little support in the mainstream civil rights community.

"All we have to do is look what's happening in other places. We're marching on city halls all over the country. Riots are taking place. Every conceivable strategy is being implemented, and nothing is happening," Jeffrey said. "Eventually, you have to come to the conclusion that you're hitting the wrong target. It's time for us to start asking who's displacing our businesses, who's gentrifying our communities, who's not hiring us, who's weakening our unions--and we have to do it now, because we're not only losing our property, we're losing our lives."

The boycott arose in the wake of the death of Aaron Roberts, 37, a convicted felon being sought on an arrest warrant who was stopped for erratic driving. Police say Officer Craig Price shot him in the stomach after Roberts drove off with Price's partner, Officer Greg Neubert, hanging from the car door. The slain man's family says there are witnesses who dispute the officers' account. The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation.

The tragedy occurred only a little more than a year after the April 2000 shooting of a mentally ill black man who had stolen juice from a supermarket, fired shots at store employees and skipped down a sidewalk with a knife.

King County's chief executive, Ron Sims, who is black, has called for a full inquest into the Roberts shooting, and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has pledged full cooperation. "Any time an officer has to take someone's life in the line of duty, it's truly a tragedy," the police chief told a public forum held after the shooting.

Mainstream organizations such as the Urban League and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People have been prominent at public meetings in the wake of the shooting, calling for independent investigations.

But in a city that prides itself on its progressivism, whose black population has shrunk to 8.4%, Seattle has escaped much of the turmoil that has characterized modern racial politics.

Jeffrey, 54, is one of a growing cadre of activist black pastors--many quite young and highly educated--who are injecting new social justice issues into an increasingly multiracial debate. Jeffrey's colleagues at the People's Coalition for Justice include union activists, environmentalists, Native American advocates and a Green Party leader.

Jeffrey himself, a father of four who comes from three generations of Baptist preachers, is no stranger to economic activism. He was leading a campaign that targeted companies such as Boeing (for selling jets to South Africa) and Nordstrom (for "racial indifference") in 1994 when his church, home to a congregation of 1,200, burned down in what Jeffrey suspected was arson.

The church opened the doors on a new building--of brick, iron and steel--only last year. The congregation is mostly, but not all, African American.

The Starbucks campaign promises to estrange some. Leaders of the central district community point out that it was Starbucks' decision to locate in the neighborhood that led to other companies such as Walgreens and Hollywood Video moving in. School leaders have come forward with testimonials about Starbucks' support of neighborhood programs.

Wanda Hendron, Starbucks' senior vice president for worldwide affairs, said business is up since the boycott started last week. She said it's not the company's role to form political policy. "We are not an activist or a political organization. When people say that we should do more than take money from the community, we do give back," she said. "What we're willing to do is to help invigorate the community by providing jobs, supporting educational and philanthropic programs for youth, and it hurts us when a small group of people decide that we need to be doing something else, which happens to be on their agenda."

The People's Coalition is considering expanding the boycott to include other downtown Starbucks and has asked about 30 other businesses to endorse its campaign--under threat of expanding the boycott. The mainstream Washington Assn. of Churches is calling for a meeting between community and corporate leaders in the fall.

"A lot of corporations are saying: 'Why should we be targeted for a boycott in this kind of a community issue? We donate money for a lot of services in the community,' " said John Boonstra, the association's executive director. "That's all to the good, but what we're trying to say is responsibility is more than simply acts of charity. Responsibility also means engaging the community as they try to struggle with the kinds of solutions they think will be helpful to their community in times of crisis."

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