The restroom bomb threat that wasn’t

In my recent post on Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the flâneur, I reminisced on my days in San Francisco. I lived there, inconsistently, from summer 2005 until late summer 2009. I had the privilege of experiencing life in Parkmerced, Hunters Point, Excelsior, and for a few weeks, I did stints at friends’ places on Haight and in Outer Richmond near Sutro Heights. These were my post-college, pre-marriage days when I was really discovering myself, buying most everything on credit, and living under the delusion that San Francisco was to be my forever-home.

My first job in the City was at the Starbucks on the corner of Van Ness and Bush (pictured above via I had a sniff of big-city fame because of a bomb threat that happened at our store. Sadly, my old blog, “Fog City Narrative,” is proof that not everything on the Internet is eternal. I can’t find it. Nor can I find the SFist article that linked to my blog narration of the following events, or the SFist article that congratulated me when I moved on from my job at Starbucks. (This indicates someone at SFist read my blog and that was my shot at San Francisco writer-fame. As you are aware, it never materialized!) Those were the two places on the web where I was loosely connected with the events I’ll narrate here.
Thankfully, there are some online news articles to collaborate! On the morning of January 9th, 2006, I was sent to make a run to a nearby bank to deposit money from the store. When I returned, the police were taping off the area. I wasn’t allowed inside. My assistant manager was crying and shaken. Apparently, she was the one who has discovered an object that the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) determined was an explosive before determining that it wasn’t.
What do I mean by this? Well, a series of news stories will show you.

  1. The first stories matched my experience, written mostly on the 9th or 10th of January. They reported that (A) an explosive was found; (2) it was detonated with a water canon. SFPD Sgt. Neville Gittens is quoted saying things like the object “would have caused damage if it exploded” and that “This was a good device. If it had exploded, it would have caused injuries or damage”. See e.g. SFGate; East Bay Times; CNN; CNN Money.
  2. Then they found a suspect a couple of days later: a homeless man named Ronald Schouten. The media continued to report things like “The SFPD bomb squad confirmed it was definitely an explosive device” and concluded, regarding Schouten (Sgt. Gittens again), “There is no connection to any terrorism or anything against Starbucks…Everything at this point and time indicates that this particular individual acted alone and this is an isolated incident.” See e.g. SFGate; CBS News; East Bay Times; Fox News.
  3. Then they determined, contrary to what was said the day of the event, and the subsequent days, that the explosive wasn’t an explosive but just a flashlight. Jaxon Van Derbeken on the San Francisco Chronicle opened his article with this paragraph: “San Francisco authorities struggled to explain Thursday how they concluded that an object left in a Starbucks bathroom was a bomb, when tests revealed it was nothing more than a flashlight with corroded batteries.” He reports regarding Sgt. Gittens, “Gittens defended the department’s handling of the matter, saying that in the post-Sept. 11 world, police are inclined to err on the side of caution.” And then Van Derbeken relayed off-the-record confirmation: “[Gittens] would not confirm that the device was simply a flashlight. But authorities speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that was the case.” See e.g. SFGate; CBS News.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the SFPD probably was just overly cautious and then further tests revealed the object wasn’t what they thought it was. But I admit being very weirded out by the whole experience back in 2006, mostly because Starbucks sent a representative from Seattle to talk to us and tell us how to avoid the media and then the story changed quickly. I admit that in 2006, I entertained the idea that Starbucks and the SFPD were trying to prevent fear by walking back to their original announcement. In the Bush-era, Starbucks was a corporation that some people in the Bay Area were targeting. The attacks on Starbucks stories in San Francisco in 2003 are referenced in several of the above-linked articles. Would bomb threats be bad for business? Yes. But does a grand conspiracy theory make the most sense? No. I mean, CBS reported that Ronald Schouten said:”I love that Starbucks,” Schouten said in an interview with the station. “The people are saints. They know I’m homeless. They let me drink coffee for 50 cents. I love those people.”

And this bomb-threat-that-wasn’t tells us something about epistemology. It tells us that even when we find out that what we thought we knew and experienced isn’t true the first move shouldn’t be toward conspiracy. Is there a reason for conspiracy in this particular situation? Sure, in light of 9/11 and the vandalism of 2003. Is it likely that people working for Starbucks and the SFPD could’ve pulled off this switch of stories within a few days if it were a lie? Maybe but unlikely, especially with off-the-record confirmation that it wasn’t an explosive. Is it more probable that the initial, cautious investigation was overly cautious and that a man who was homeless just dropped a weird object he had found causing concern in a city that already had a tense relationship with corporate power during a particular era of American politics? Yeah, it seems that this makes the most sense.

But a conspiracy would’ve made for a really fun story, right? I do wonder what happened to Schouten. When you google his name, he, unfortunately (or fortunately) shares it with a famous professor of psychiatry. I hope everything worked out for him.


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