Starbucks’ epic fail after an epic fail

Or how after a racist incident, Starbucks chose as a partner an organisation with a track record of racist activism.

Police officers stand guard in front of a Center City Starbucks in Philadelphia as protesters demonstrate on April 16 [Reuters/Mark Makela]

Days ago, the United States was shaken by yet another racism scandal. The manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks branch called the police on two black men because they were waiting for a friend in the store and hadn’t ordered anything. Police officers arrived and thought it necessary to take the men out in handcuffs. 

While it is not uncommon that people of colour endure such harassment and humiliation in predominantly white spaces in Philadelphia, a video of this particular ordeal went viral and spurred protests and calls for a boycott of the coffeeshop franchise. 

Following the incident, the Starbucks corporation went into damage control, but instead of genuinely trying to address the issue, it managed only to dig itself deeper into controversy.

In a move of spectacular ignorance and tone-deafness, Starbucks’ idea of restoring their image was to partner with the notoriously racist, pro-police, pro-Apartheid, pro-Israel, Islamophobic Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to conduct “sensitivity training” for its employees across the country.

Of course, it didn’t take long for activists to call them out, and for a good reason.

In 1993, the police raided the offices of the ADL, carting off boxes and boxes of illegally obtained files spanning decades of data and dossiers on individuals and organisations, particularly against those opposed to Israel’s and apartheid South Africa’s policies. 

They had files on nearly 10,000 individuals and at least 950 organisations, including labour unions, LGBT groups, progressive media, Arab-American and anti-Zionist Jewish organisations, the NAACP and other civil rights organisations, the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid groups, student unions and scholarly associations, charity foundations, South American solidarity organisations, environmental activists and more.

They put special emphasis on so-called “Black Demagogues and Extremists”, creating profiles on black leaders like Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Rev Al Sharpton, and black cultural figures like Amiri Baraka and Ice Cube. There were dossiers on political figures such as Pete McCloskey who expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments.

The information included driver’s license numbers, addresses, phone numbers, group memberships, activism work, relationships, conversation transcripts, social and other personal data. Following lawsuits brought about by victims, a judge issued a permanent injunction against the ADL not to use illegal means to monitor the activities of others. 

The data had been shared with foreign governments, including Israeli and apartheid South African intelligence, as well as US intelligence which was actively engaged in such ignominious surveillance programmes as COINTELPRO

In fact, in 1968, then-director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, issued an order according to which FBI offices had to establish liaise with ADL regional offices. The order was renewed in 1985. Eventually, however, their activities were too extreme for the FBI, and an analyst suggested that the ADL should be investigated as an Israeli foreign agent.

While portraying itself as a nonprofit civil rights organisation, the ADL championed Islamophobic rhetoric. This famously prompted Farid Zakaria to return the Hubert H Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize, which the ADL awards. Zakaria wrote of his decision: “I cannot in good conscience keep it.”

Since 2004, as the country has become increasingly aware of violent over-policing and mass incarceration of black and brown bodies, the ADL has been subsidising the militarisation of police forces across the United States by funding police training junkets in Israel.

The ADL has been spending tax-exempt dollars to have US police officers receive training from a persistent human rights abuser, which has repeatedly been accused of war crimes, including unlawful killings, forced displacement, abusive detention and discriminatory protocols that target Palestinians. In other words, American police officers are learning tactics from a country notorious for the use of excessive force, such as ” shoot to kill ” in non-life threatening circumstances. 

And yet, out of literally tens of thousands of social justice and civil rights organisations in the US, Starbucks thinks the ADL is the perfect partner with which to work on giving its employees “sensitivity training” following a highly publicised example of racism and over-policing. 

It is an epic fail in public relations following an epic fail in human decency.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.