A video depicting an NYPD officer repeatedly asking a barista at Upstate Stock (2 Berry St.) why he can’t use the bathroom has led to several questions about the incident, including why the officer and his colleague are not, like many officers seen across the city, wearing mandatory face masks inside a business that requires protective measures.
Upstate Stock owner Bram Robinson didn’t expect to be selling as much smoked salmon and kale (or donating as much hand sanitizer) as he did this spring, reformulating his store to sell provisions in the era of COVID-19. He also didn’t expect that while selling more than ever, to be losing “piles of money” and have his business at the center of a viral video that’s led to a debate over pandemic and racial concerns.
On Saturday, June 6, two separate videos captured the incident in question. An officer standing behind one speaking to the barista filmed his version of the event, while a bystander recorded another version. She’d been in the store to buy a gift for a friend who was working through COVID, and felt fed up with the police presence in the area. Once she saw a mask-less officer recording the incident on his phone, she decided to record it too and share the video with the employees, to help share their side of the story. Some video viewers are using the officer’s push back to exemplify NYPD’s intimidation tactics, while others see racism in the interaction.
Last weekend, Robinson (who is White) was working at Upstate Stock’s Kent Avenue shop when he noticed police vans parked outside around 11 a.m. As a local business owner, he knew these weren’t neighborhood cops, but likely officers sent to monitor protests. He welcomed officers who came into the shop, at first distracted by the uniforms, he “didn’t even realize they weren’t wearing masks,” he says. When a captain and his colleague asked to use the bathroom, Robinson decided to open it up as a courtesy, and sanitize it afterwards. The captain then spent $75 at the store, which Robinson says was “totally cool.”
Upstate Stock has had an “out of order” sign on the bathroom door to prevent patron usage since early March. Only four masked shoppers are allowed in the store at once, and free gloves are required to touch the inventory, rules most NYPD officers repeatedly did not follow while enjoying the air conditioning inside Upstate Stock on Saturday. More officers trickled in, ostensibly after learning about the open bathroom. “They were like school children on a field trip,” Robinson recalls. Customers waiting outside observing social distancing were “offended,” but he decided not to make a big issue of the cluster of mostly mask-less cops in his store.
20-year-old barista Justice appeared for work at noon on Saturday with his 22-year-old boyfriend and co-worker. His boss, Robinson, warned them about unmasked cops taking up space in the store all day. When he left, he told them that no one at all could use the bathroom.
Shortly after, an officer asked Justice to use the restroom, he told her it wasn’t allowed, and she left. Later, another officer asked to use the restroom, and was given the same response. He went outside to join his colleagues, and what happens next is recorded:
In the footage, the officer returns with a colleague recording on an iPhone to ask Justice why he won’t allow him, a black officer, to use the shop’s bathroom, citing that his white colleague used the same bathroom earlier. The barista explains he’s under strict instructions from the manager to not allow anyone in the bathroom. Upstate Stock is near McCarren Park, where public bathrooms are open to all.
After the officer leaves, Justice witnessed him laughing outside with his colleagues. He was angry that the officer then uploaded the video to Instagram, as Justice is a barista at a small coffee shop, not a public officer, and didn’t want to be recorded. “It’s not fair that my face is in their narrative, it’s really frustrating,” he says. “I do a lot to be an activist and uplift other people’s voices.” Justice, who is queer, also felt that the officer was trying to intimidate him with his deeper voice.
Upstate Stock has not posted anything on its Instagram grid, Facebook page or website voicing support of the recent protests, but has dedicated three posts to the June 6th incident.
The incident has been shared with Attorney General Letitia James, who is currently investigating alleged NYPD misconduct, as well as Assemblyman Joe Lentol. Robinson says he’s not sure how far he wants to push this, but noted that he sees the incident as “a police tactic to redirect the narrative.” He’s still unclear why an officer was in his private business without PPE confronting an employee. “It was just bullying,” he says.
We’ve reached out to the NYPD officer depicted in the video for comment. This story is developing and will be updated accordingly.