NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 13: A view outside Shake Shack in Herald Square during the coronavirus pandemic on May 13, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 298,000 lives with over 4.4 million infections reported. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
Earlier this week, two police unions were caught pushing the story that three officers had been poisoned by Shake Shack employees. After the NYPD investigated, it was determined that the story was untrue. Then on Wednesday, a video featuring a person who claimed to be an officer crying because her McDonald’s order was taking too long, and she feared it was being tampered with, went viral.
These are just two recent examples of police officers accusing fast food workers of intentionally interfering with their orders. These incidents come during points of heightened tension between the police and the public, after police have been brutalizing protesters across the country for weeks, and as calls to defund and abolish police departments are gaining support.
At first, the stories may seem relatively benign (and sometimes a little funny), but there is an insidious dynamic at the root of them. Not only does it reveal the way police departments and unions often lie to the public, shaping the narrative in ways that benefit them, but it also makes use of the blatant imbalance of power between the accusing cop and the accused fast food worker.
Police officers have a large amount of institutional power supporting them, and when they accuse minimum wage fast food workers of misconduct, it puts the workers at risk. These situations also disproportionately impact workers of color who work these minimum wage jobs, and who are vulnerable to losing those jobs in the face of serious accusations from a police officer. And now, with the economy in continued turmoil and jobs hard to come by, accusations from members of the NYPD against employees at Shake Shack could seriously harm those employees.
It also doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the accused employees are all working at fast food establishments. When it comes to restaurant jobs, there is a racial disparity at play, with more white people working fine-dining and higher paying jobs — positions of which Black workers are almost completely shut out. “For African-American workers, it’s almost 100 percent exclusion from [fine dining restaurants] altogether,” Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the director of the Food Labor Research Institute at UC Berkeley, told NPR in 2015. “They work almost exclusively at fast-food restaurants or very casual restaurants like Red Lobster.”
Forty percent of fast food workers live in poverty, and a 2015 study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education shows that nearly 52 percent of all fast food workers are dependent upon public assistance programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and child care subsidies. Low-wage workers are the most vulnerable and stand to struggle the most if they lose their jobs; many work paycheck-to-paycheck and live at or below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the average police officer’s salary is nearly $70,000 annually, making these food conspiracy theories just one more example of police officers imposing their wills on marginalized and vulnerable people.
These recent accusations against fast food workers started on Monday night when three officers went to the hospital after drinking milkshakes they suspected to be poisoned with bleach. The New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (NYC PBA) and the Detective’s Endowment Agency (DEA) both publicly accused the Shake Shack employees of intentionally spiking the shakes. The small amount of cleaning solution that was in the drinks was attributed to a malfunction of the machine that makes the shakes; all three officers are fine. After the employees were cleared of any wrongdoing, Mayor Bill de Blasio ripped into the unions, saying he was “sick of” police unions spreading unsubstantiated rumors and accused them of “sowing division” in the city.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a video of a police officer giving a play-by-play breakdown of how long her McDonald’s order was taking to arrive went viral, as she started to speculate that they were tampering with her food. When her coffee arrived, she told the worker to keep the food, because she was afraid to eat it. The video ended with the officers in tears, a plea for people to be nicer to cops, and the poster listing the phone number of that specific McDonald’s location for anyone to call and voice their concerns. Richmond Hill Police Department issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon stating that the woman in the video is not a member of their department.
In connection with these two incidents, many people recalled a separate story from December in which a police officer accused a McDonald’s employee of writing “fucking pig” on his receipt; it was later proven that he’d put it there himself, and the officer resigned. Last summer, an officer accused a McDonald’s employee of taking a bite of his McChicken sandwich because he “forgot” he’d taken the bite himself.
These instances, in addition to recent outright accusations, are no longer a product of coincidence. Police have a clear history of behavior against workers, and an even more clear history of lying to the public about it.
When police officers make statements to the public, they are often taken at face value. It is only recently, in the face of mass protests, that many journalists have begun to question statements given to them by police. After the first few nights of unrest in Minneapolis, St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter said in a press conference that every person arrested the previous night had been from out of state; he later apologized and walked back those comments, admitting he was just repeating the information given to him by the police.
Earlier this month, at the onset of the protests, the NYPD reported that $2.4 million worth of merchandise had been stolen — looted — from a Rolex store, which was reported by the New York Post. The story ended up to be false. A week later, the Post again reported information given to them by police — an alert warning officers that protesters were using concrete disguised as ice cream — despite the fact that photos showed clearly that the concrete was from a nearby construction site.
“In some cases, the cops may be lying outright to journalists to create a narrative that, in the case of last week’s stories, frame police as victims or justify brutal arrests of peaceful protesters,” Allegra Hobbs wrote at Study Hall. The Los Angeles Times described it as a “persecution complex” on the part of police officers, in which everyone is out to get them and they are the perpetual victim. But the amount of power police have as compared to the minimum wage fast food workers who can and do lose their jobs when accused of tampering with food makes this an unfair fight. Most of the time, the world will side with the system — the white supremacist police state — and the low wage worker will be the one who loses out.
“The same paranoia that leads a police officer to assume he’s been poisoned by a milkshake can lead him to needlessly escalate encounters with civilians,” Mariah Kreutter wrote for the Los Angeles Times. “Excessive police violence isn’t going to end as long as too many law enforcement agencies are peopled with or led by fragile, skittish warrior-wannabes who have deadly weapons, qualified immunity and the knee-jerk assumption that the people they’re meant to serve and protect — especially Black people — are trying to kill them.”
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