Monday, July 30, 2018

Starbucks called the cops on me!

Got to be a difficult headline to make these days.

Technically a Starbucks employee called a mall cop who called the police on me. It wasn't really a Starbucks thing. This was personal.

Montreal, Canada, where I'm staying for July has La ville souterraine, The Underground City, a sprawling mall beneath the pavement that's temperate year round. This summer Sunday morning on the way to Mont-Royal park I was leaving the Peel Metro station and wandered into a part of the mall called Les Cours Mont-Royal.  Most stores were shuttered but a Cafe Starbucks was lit. An oasis of taste in the middle of low ceilings that smell like 1970. A few workers were busy in the narrow space behind the cagey mechanism that mall shops use when they're closed. I snapped a photo to send to the kids. While fiddling with putting a sad emoticon over the photo, a worker in bright green apron started sliding the cage door open. Hallelujah, what a storybook day this is turning out to be. I photographed the same scene with him in it, feeling very lucky and looking forward to a delicious fix.

He barked out that it is illegal to take photos of people without their permission and asked me to delete the photo. He approached and insisted on watching me delete the photo. I refused. He said he would call the police. Another employee called out from behind the cage confirming that it was illegal what I'd done. While the first guy watched as I hit the back button in Snapchat which deleted his photo. He was not satisfied and wanted to see my Snapchat gallery. I didn't know what that was. The second employee who had come out from behind the counter offered to show me. I said I'm leaving now. The first employee called to a security guard who confirmed that it's illegal to take photos of people without their permission, and that I was now obligated to convince the party that I had deleted the photo. Hashtag that feeling when you're in a strange country and it's stop-making-sense time.

I told him I'm leaving now. He said I can't leave.

"Are you police?"
"Are you detaining me?"
"Can I see your badge?"
        "It's back in the room. If you come with me I'll show you." He pointed down a long low side hallway.
"I'm not going anywhere with you. Do you have the right to detain me?"
        "Yes. I can make a citizen's arrest."

He was standing very close. He began a long conversation with his lapel, most of it in French.

I was immediately reminded of Matt Harding's arrest in Greece for taking pictures dancing in front of the Parthenon, as recounted in his hilarious book. (That book really is excellent, not much longer than this blog post but a hundred times more interesting.) I knew I had way less courage to spend, but the recollection primed me to be a little defiant of silly demands. I wasn't about to physically challenge Paul Blart or anyone else. But like Matt said, I was curious how far we were all willing to go with this.

When he was done I asked what happens next? "We wait for the police." At first he said all I had to do was convince the guy I'd deleted the photo and this could all be over. He called out to a custodian and asked her to go get his badge. She was exasperated at the whole thing but then offered to take his subway sandwich back to his office while she retrieved the badge. (The guy had been about to have lunch.) After I saw his badge I offered to show him my snapchat thingie whatever-it-was. But by then he wanted to wait for the police. I had the impression he didn't want to be empty handed, so to speak, when the police got there.

"I'm sitting down." I sat at a table in front of the store.

Something clicked. I turned to the security guard. Starbucks calling the police on someone, that might be newsworthy. He had a very strange look at that moment, for some reason I remember it vividly. He showed no sign of knowing what I was referring to. He inhaled deeply. Or maybe he thought "No, man, that's not at all what this is," but with no trace of contempt. It was almost sagely. In fact his hostility in that moment kind of melted away. Before then he seemed as if he was walking that fine line that authority figures know well, of keeping the situation calm, but ready to respond vigorously to any escalation. Anyway he explained this was not Starbucks calling the police, it was this guy's personal privacy I had invaded. Canada was starting to make a little more sense.

Two guys in uniform show up. They conversed with the security guard in French. One asked me how I was feeling. Then he asked again. He didn't ask me anything about my version of events.

"Are you police?"
        "We're paramedics."

They explained to the security guard that when you make a 9-1-1 call and don't specify the emergency they send everything. (Earlier there had been a French conversation with a fire guy too. I thought he was just passing through.) The paramedic took my pulse and blood pressure and asked at least four times if I was on any medication. (No times four.) He asked me to sign a form refusing to go to the hospital. He said 135 over 90 was pretty good for a 59-year-old. He could have added, one who may be about to be arrested. He said it was very unlikely I'd be arrested and probably I wouldn't be fined. The security guard on the other hand had been talking up the possibility of a fine, as well as a lawsuit from the Starbucks employee.

I asked the paramedic, "Does the security guard have any authority to detain me?"
        "No, no he doesn't" They conversed in French, then the paramedic seemed to walk it back.

I can't say how long it took the police to arrive, maybe half an hour. There were two, a man and a woman. The man cop gestured for me to stay seated when I started to stand. They talked for a while in French with everyone. The man cop looked me in the eye for a long moment before he spoke to me. He could have been sussing my state of mind. He could have been practicing his Jedi mind trick. The woman cop approached, and after I mangled a "Parlez vous Anglais?" at her, she asked "So what happened here?"

What I did next was pretty dumb. I asked -- as politely as I could muster -- if I could see their badges. The woman cop seemed perplexed, pointed out her shoulder embroidering, her uniform, her equipment. The man cop barked contemptuously "Okay we're having none of that here," and pointed to the various features of his uniform, including his conspicuous gun. I apologized, explaining that a cop in Miami had once told me to always ask to see badges, but then I remembered he had been plain-clothes. So rules are to be leavened with prudence.

I explained my morning plans, the unclosing store, the photos. The police confirmed that all I had to do was delete the photos. The woman cop knew about Snapchat gallery. She reached for my phone and offered to do it for me but I explained I needed to learn. So that's what those double-squares are for. No Starbucks photos there. From there it all started winding down. The police seemed to defer to Starbucks employee numéro un. Was he was satisfied? He nodded. I thanked Security Guard Michael, and Paramedic Giorgio. I still wanted a latte. But sometimes even I know when it's time to bail.

I left chatting amiably with the cops. (I know the best minds of our day say never talk to cops. Yeah I'm just not going to not do that. Not there yet.) I said this must happen a lot with dumb tourists. No this almost never happens. Instead of a guy in a strange country, suddenly I was just a strange guy on planet normal. They pointed the way up the street to Mont-Royal. An ambulance at the curb with flashing lights, I groaned, "Don't tell me he's here for me." Nope, he was only there partly for me. Canada politeness.

My regret is that I didn't think to ask the cops or the paramedics or the security guard or ANYone if I could take THEIR photo in front of the Starbucks. Wouldn't that have been sweet to post here? Now my dad or my brother Doug could have totally pulled off something like that. One big group selfie, the Starbucks employees would have joined in with smiles all around. My way is more like, okay now everyone disperse and go back to your lives with a gut full of WTF just happened.

I was mildly keyed up throughout the whole thing. My worry peaked when I thought, hey this really could be another hefty Canadian fine. You see my first day in Montreal I got three tickets for three different gaffes. Another story. Short version: read all the signs and read up on local laws. It wasn't a language issue, French is easy enough to translate. I misunderstood arrows. Twice. They do things differently here.

Case in point, I count eight people on at least five different payrolls who participated dutifully in my little drama, assiduously righting a cybercrime. Seriously? I wondered, is this where we're all headed. (After some research I conclude, nope, Montreal is just weird. More on that later.)

Privacy is an issue on the ascendant. The morality, legality, and value of privacy are all debated heatedly. The cost of privacy on the other hand is unambiguously on a precipitous rise. It may turn out to be one of those mortal questions like what's the value of safety, or human health. I'm a big fan of all these things, but it's obvious they're on trend to bankrupt us. If they don't, I can't picture what exactly restraint will look like. This is going to be difficult.

: : :

So here's the part where I come clean and confess all the ways my click-baity title misled you. My dumb little story was different from the far more interesting one earlier this year for several little reasons and three big ones. It was an hour inconvenience, I felt more annoyed than unsafe. More surreal than unfairly treated. More like an absent-minded anthropologist than a second-class non-citizen. Most of the time I felt in control. Those differences are small because they were limited to the day and limited to me. I sense much bigger differences.

1. I was detained exclusively for something I did (took the guy's photo), plus something I didn't do (double-delete it for mister camera-shy). I have no reason to suspect anything like this will happen to me again if merely change one specific behavior. And it's an easy change. I never felt as if I might be treated differently because of who I am. No pattern here, this was one-off. 2. I could have ended the episode at any time by giving up something that cost nothing. And if I'd done a little research I could have avoided it entirely. I felt in control throughout. 3. There was no clue that all my descendants will have lots of experiences like this all their lives. I was thinking how my kids are going to laugh about this. I'll finally have something to post that's interesting to them. It was a temporary puddle of dumbness I was in. I never felt as if the rules for me -- and for them -- were forever going to be a little more strict, a little harsher, a little bleaker. This was freak weather, not climate change. Amusing and soon to be over. Not like it's always going to be this way.

So I'm three degrees of underqualified to know what the business end of racism feels like. I had a little taste of organized coercion today. Of putting up with a bit of stupidity and overkill. I was on edge all day from it. I'm something of a virtuoso at hiding feelings, but this one is likely to strike out someday soon. I'll be on watch. Anyway I have to respect as beyond my horizon what it's like living with the kind of adversity that's got the three multipliers listed above.

I did look it up, and this photography permission issue is different in Quebec. Goes back to a 1988 incident in Montreal, and a 1998 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada. One blogger called it Canada's Most Controversial Photo.

I'm all about making up reasons and purposes after the fact. A secondary reason I came to Montreal was to have new experiences. This was so unexpected, and I have no clue how it might change me, but I'll keep a look out. Just now realizing something. It may have nothing to do with it, but in the hours since I've had a bunch of really nice interactions with several different people. For some reason I wasn't awkward today.


gmgj said...

this is pretty random, but, you will get the point. I was practicing taking videos with my phone in front of my house. I had taken a seat on the stoop, to change some settings, stood up, and this women walking by freaked out. Oh No, I don't want my picture taken. I had not pointed the phone at her, but she was really paranoid about having her picture taken. I use to video people at the local pool so I could help them swim better. No more videos at the pool. But, they caught the Boston Marathon Bombers, with videos and pictures crowd sourced. I want to use my GoPro as a dash cam. Does someone one the road have the right not to have there car filmed? It confusing and annoying. Look at this . Its been established that we can take videos of police doing there jobs. But what if someone enters the picture and says, stop, I don't want my picture taken, yet, your filming something for a very good reason. I don't know what to say. I am using Google Keep take a pic for reminders and such. I expect sooner or later, someone is going to complain. I hope I am in a good mood when it happens

E-L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E-L said...

Trying this, again:

Bob, I would have been horrified to be subject to this response to taking a picture while visiting somewhere. I would be horrified in any event. The experience you described is surreal. I wish you had at least been accompanied by someone who could have provided sanity checks.

The irony is not lost of personal liberty being sacrificed to personal privacy. That individual's perception of privacy justified the preumption of another individual's actual physical liberty to go about unimpeded.

The whole of human society seems to have fallen down the rabbit hole.

Unknown said...

Bob, with every word written I could see your expressions and hear your voice with your Spock like responses. I felt like I was there! All I can think is that it was a experience that will serve to remind you of how others suffer on a daily basis. Not that you don't already, it will just give you even more compassion than you already have.I guess the lesson to learn here is, try to know the laws of the country your visiting.I have heard a lot about Canada and it's ever increasing laws that are controversal to Canadians themselves.As a American you were reacting as a American ,but it was Canada.It really seems funny at some points like a Monty python sketch. especially the part where they take your blood pressure.That was so odd.I suspect you'll be more careful now. If that had happened to me I would break down sobbing and have a panic attack but being outraged I would never show them my things would get ugly.You my friend handled it well but I bet you were rattled for the rest of the day.

Anonymous said...

There are worse forms of persecution.