News and Commentary

In Philadelphia, Two Americas

Philadelphia was home to two of the past week’s biggest stories, two utterly contrasting events that illustrate how America is at once reactionary and hysterical even as ordinary Americans remain stirringly brave.

First, at a Starbucks last Thursday, police arrested two black men who were occupying a table but — the store manager told a 911 operator — hadn’t made a purchase. The men said they were waiting for a friend to discuss a potential real estate deal. That part of their story appears to add up, and it’s possible that, even if the men were technically trespassing according to that store’s policy, the manager overreacted by calling 911.

And yet, businesses have the right to enforce reasonable rules, particularly when non-paying customers may be taking a table where paying customers would sit. Plus, the men themselves said on Good Morning America that they refused to make a purchase even when the manager said they need to buy something or leave. So, it’s not as simple a situation as Twitter makes it out to be.

Not surprisingly, the video of the arrest went viral, and #BoycottStarbucks trended.

The company’s executive team then flew from Seattle to Philadelphia for a damage-control tour.

CEO Kevin Johnson said that he has “no doubt” that the store manager who called 911 did so because the two men are black. On Tuesday he announced that on May 29 Starbucks would close all of its 8,000 nationwide company-owned locations and subject 175,000 employees to “racial-bias education,” a euphemism for “sensitivity training,” a euphemism for “how to not say or do anything that may get us sued.”

Executive Chairman Howard Schultz said that “what occurred was reprehensible at every single level.” He told CBS News’ Gayle King, “I was sick to my stomach,” adding that “the level of unconscious bias that exists in America” is “systemic.”

And, to ensure that no one misses how woke he is, Schultz acknowledged guilt for an incident he played no part in and that we still don’t fully understand (still no statement from the manager — who’s apparently a progressive — and no surveillance footage).

“I personally am responsible,” a grovelling Schultz confessed pathetically.

Of course, not responsible enough to leave the company, as the manager has done, “pending an investigation by Starbucks,” a spokesperson told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

On the same day as Schultz’s and Johnson’s mea culpa, 32,500 feet in the skies above Pennsylvania, not far from the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce, a story about the other America — the courageous, steady, and grounded America — was about to unfold.

Southwest Flight 1380 was about 40 minutes into its four-hour flight from La Guardia to Dallas-Love. New Yorkers and Texans and Americans from all over were doing what people on airplanes do — napping, reading, watching movies, looking at the sky, the clouds, and the miniature-looking homes and roads and rivers below.

But as flight attendants walked down the aisle taking drink orders, everything went wrong. A blast came from the plane’s left wing. An engine had exploded.

The plane lurched downward. Smoke poured through the ventilation system. Passengers scrambled to put oxygen masks on themselves and their children.

Flying shrapnel blew out the window next to passenger Jennifer Riordan, a wife, a mother of two, and an executive at Wells Fargo in Albuquerque.

Riordan was sucked partially out of the window before passengers Andrew Needum, a firefighter from Celina, Texas, and Tim McGinty, a ranch hand from Brandon, Texas who was wearing his cowboy hat on the flight, rushed from their seats to help pull her back in.

They laid her across a row of seats as Peggy Phillips, a retired nurse from Dallas, performed CPR on Riordan to try to keep her alive. It was too late. The blunt trauma she had suffered from the shrapnel was too devastating for anyone to survive.

But there were still 143 passengers and five crew members on Flight 1380 whose lives remained in the balance. The blown-out window could have sucked out nearby passengers. The blown-out engine put the entire aircraft in danger.

For the next 20 minutes, as the cabin was a tornado-like scene of debris, every passenger prepared for what they thought may be their final moments. Prayers to God, frantic texts to loved ones, a Facebook Live.

In an attempt to seal the window, a man positioned his body in front of it, subjecting his back to “severe pressure.” His clothes became covered in blood.

Meanwhile, in the cockpit, the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, calmly informed traffic control that her plane’s engine blew out and that she’d be making an emergency landing.

To listen to the audio of her conversation is to hear what “nerves of steel” — as one passenger described Shults — sounds like. Vital information clearly communicated. No wasted words. Professionalism epitomized.

Shults: “Southwest 1380 has an engine fire. Descending.”

Air traffic control: “Southwest 1380 — you’re descending right now?”

Shults: “Yes sir, we’re single-engine descending, have a fire in number one.”

Air traffic control: “Southwest 1380, okay, where would you like to go to? Which airport?

Shults: “Give us a vector for your closest. Philadelphia.”

Shults, a former F/A-18 Hornet pilot for the Navy’s Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron, was the first woman to fly F-18s. A religious Christian, she has said that captaining planes gives her “the opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight.”

In high school, Shults said she was turned away from an aviation career fair because she was a girl. The Air Force would not let her take an entrance test for the same reason. The Navy, though, was willing to consider her.

On Tuesday, as Shults guided her plane to within visual range of Philadelphia International Airport, she confirmed with air traffic control if there would be medical personnel on hand to treat injured passengers.

As The New York Times reported:

About two minutes before they landed, Matt Tranchin’s phone got reception, so he called his wife and told her they were about to hit the ground. He figured they had a 50-50 chance of surviving.

Over the intercom, the crew sternly told passengers to put their heads down and brace themselves. Ms. Sears held onto her friend in the seat next to her and wondered, “Will it stop? Will it crash? Will it explode?”

It landed.

Relieved passengers joyously applauded, texting and calling their family to let them know they were fine.

“Thank you, we are going to stop right here by the fire trucks,” Shults told air traffic control. “Thank you, guys, for the help.”

She then stepped out of the cockpit, walking through the cabin to hug grateful passengers.

A few hours later, she texted a pilot friend of hers, “God is good.”

It’s hard to not marvel at how superficially similar yet substantially dissimilar the Starbucks and Southwest stories are.

Philadelphia and Philadelphia. Tuesday and Tuesday. Schultz and Shults.

But two pictures tell the actual story.

One, of a Black Lives Matter activist at the Philadelphia Starbucks sticking a bullhorn in a stoic-looking barista’s face. The other, of Tammie Jo Shults holding the hand of one of her passengers, Pastor Timothy Bourman, as his face exudes gratitude. I think this photo is closer to the real America, the one that news cameras only capture in times of true crisis.

The men who lead Starbucks, Kevin Johnson and Howard Schultz, hurt us as a nation this week. They abetted Hysteria, Inc. They threw us into another breathless frenzy. Not one Starbucks should be closing on May 29.

What a waste of energy it all is.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the movie about Southwest Flight 1380 and the grace and coolness of Tammie Jo Shults.

She deserves it.

And we need it.