A tragic and curious chain of events is now playing out in Seattle, events that specifically involve Starbucks but that could ultimately involve other high-profile retailing, such as supermarkets.
The tragic event is one that is becoming all too familiar in many places: A white police officer shot and killed a black suspect. As is often the case after such an incident, a protest group formed to challenge the legitimacy of deadly force.
What's curious is that the protesters didn't petition City Hall or a police precinct. They organized a noisy protest and boycott of a Starbucks location in Seattle's Central District.
Why Starbucks? The Seattle-based coffee purveyor fields no police force and articulates no position on the incident at hand. To the contrary, the location in question is seen as lifting the fortunes of a depressed neighborhood, and the company is involved in many community-support activities.
A Starbucks spokesman declared the company to be "deeply hurt and perplexed," and pointed out that Starbucks is neither a political nor activist organization. It's odd how Starbucks seems to be a lightning rod for protest. Recall that many of the chain's locations were damaged during the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle.
Why should a neutral entity such as Starbucks be the object of protests? Well, it seems protest organizers see American business in a new light: "Corporations drive public policy and politicians are in the middle," one was quoted as saying. "Dealing with the poor guy in the middle doesn't cut it anymore. We've got to start dealing directly with the corporations that want our business."
That interpretation is one that's exceedingly important for anyone in retailing to recognize: It's evident the perception is growing that corporations control the government to the extent that governmental officials are little more than marionettes dancing at the end of strings held by business. And whether that's true or not, if it's thought to be true it makes perfect sense to leverage government by means of protests against business.
Now let's turn our attention to the food-distribution business. Could actions such as those taken against Starbucks happen at a supermarket?
Again, this is a matter of perception: If it's widely thought that supermarkets are among the business styles that wield mighty political clout, it could happen.
And it wouldn't be impossible to entertain such a notion: During the past general election supermarket retailers -- including individuals with their names on a banner -- contributed big sums to political campaigns. Additionally, food-industry trade associations are among those that have taken credit for tamping down workplace regulations, ameliorating the estate tax, playing a role in the presidential election and so on.
Of course, contributing to political parties or candidates is the very essence of participatory democracy, and the actions taken by industry lobby groups are the very ones they are charged to accomplish.
But between political contributions and lobbying efforts, members of the public could identify food distributors as major power brokers in governmental activities.
Let's hope the fate of Starbucks in Seattle doesn't befall any supermarket operator, but it's not impossible that it will. So it's not too soon to start considering how such a situation would be diffused.