Foaming at the Mouth

More than a year after the publicity fiasco of Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign, two customer-led actions staged at Starbucks stores mark the rise of a problematic new type of slacktivism, or virtual protest carried out in person but promoted via social media. Though they represent diametrically opposed ends of the ideological spectrum, the post-election #TrumpCup campaign as well as this summer’s #BlackLivesMatter Starbucks cup phenomenon both deploy a protest strategy popularized by the Occupy movement activists to get their messages heard across a crowd: the human microphone. This voice amplification technique was developed to carry out messages to a large crowd through repetition. It has been used to convey information among like-minded people, as well as to interrupt speakers as a form of organized protest.

What’s uniquely unsettling about the Starbucks-based customer use of the human microphone during 2016 is that it comes at the expense of the hourly-wage workers at the coffee house franchise locations. By declaring one’s name to be either “Trump” or “Black Lives Matter,” customers consciously ‘hack’ or usurp the Starbucks’ corporate ‘ritual’ of calling out names to amplify their own views on the importance of either acknowledging the president-elect’s victory or fighting systemic racism against African Americans. In so doing, they forgo the most important hallmark of the Occupy protest mechanism: consent among those who repeat the message.

By co-opting or usurping the baristas’ voices to achieve their own political ends, BLM supporters, Trump voters, and even company CEO Howard Schultz effectively made the coffee counter the new front line in a virtual civil rights debate. In trying to scale up the company’s open discussion forum model which allowed “partners” or employees to speak to their own experience as members of racial or ethnic minorities or as allies, Schultz promoted the use of company-issued stickers with the slogan “race together” on beverage cups as well as pre-scripted “conversation starters” to urge its workers to voluntarily engage customers in conversations on the topic of diversity. The effort quickly drew jeers and mockery, and Schultz issued an official letter informing his partners that the explicit use of the slogan would be phased out a week after it began, “as originally planned.”

The summer of 2016 saw a grass-roots phenomenon in which customers deployed the logic of the human microphone at Starbucks by telling baristas that their names were “BlackLivesMatter.” This action was in keeping with the logic of the BLM movement, which promotes personal action that “takes the hashtag off of social media and into the street.” Nonetheless, word of the practice spread via individual social media posts by customers and baristas. Online publications that reported on this trend, such as The Root, Huffington Post and Eater.com, generally lauded customers’ ingenuity in protesting against systemic racism through proclamation. At the time, no one raised alarms about how these individual actions depended upon the silencing of hourly wage workers.

The #TrumpCup campaign also employs the human microphone technique that effectively takes baristas hostage; however, it is considerably more dangerous than its critics have acknowledged. It’s not just an empty gesture to boycott a company by buying its products. “Operation #TrumpCup” campaign developed as a response to a viral video showing a white customer’s angry rant against his Starbucks barista, a woman of color, accusing her of “discrimination against whites” for taking too long to fill his order. The originator of the hashtag addressed himself to fellow Trump supporters in a tweet instructing them how to participate in this protest. The first requirement is to declare their name to be “Trump,” thereby enacting the logic of the human microphone by echoing one another as well as by coopting the voice of their paid food server to repeat the name in a commercial establishment with liberal leanings.

The second instruction of the #TrumpCup protest is even more insidious than the first and constitutes a very real, though implied, threat. It is a call to action to use the phone cameras to document and broadcast instances where baristas refuse to write “Trump” on the company’s cups or call it out when drinks are ready. This use of social media to identify and single-out employee noncompliance with a consumer based action inverts the Black Lives Matter movement’s use of phone cameras to document police brutality. It is also an extension of the Trump administration’s plans to develop a nation-wide Muslim registry and carry out the mass deportation of 3 million undocumented immigrants.

Individual baristas can circumvent the appropriation of their voice by calling out specific drink orders rather than customer names. But, as a company that purports to care about its employees, Starbucks cannot remain silent on this troubling new development the way that it has about conservatives’ protests of its Christmas cups.

The cost here is not to the bottom line; it is to the very real safety of its lowest paid employees. “Operation #TrumpCup” is an organized trolling campaign that targets individual hourly Starbucks employees and makes them vulnerable to attacks, whether virtual or actual. Because he publicly anointed his company and its employees or partners as leaders in this now-unfolding national conversation/debate on race and what constitutes discrimination, Howard Schultz now has the duty to follow up on his pledge to tackle difficult subjects: he must take a public stand on whether or not Starbucks partners must continue calling out customers’ “names” rather than their drink orders.

Staying silent on the ripple effects of the corporate strategy he unleashed last March, makes Schultz complicit in the abuse and disenfranchisement of his partners. He should publicly announce Starbucks baristas will only call out drink orders in order to preserve employee rights to free speech.

Vivian Nun Halloran is a food studies scholar at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of The Immigrant Kitchen: Food, Diversity, and Diaspora (Ohio State University Press, 2016).

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