The situation in Baltimore is the sort of divisive, racially charged, political and cultural quagmire that corporations typically dread being associated with. Seemingly everyone has a strong opinion about what’s happening on the ground in the city since the funeral for Freddie Gray—a 25-year-old African American man who died of injuries suffered to his spinal cord and larynx while in police custody earlier this month. Since Gray’s funeral on Monday, the situation in Baltimore has grown tense: amid media reports of riots and images of destruction involving police cars, a check-cashing shop, and a CVS pharmacy, the National Guard has been sent in and a city-wide curfew remains in effect.
Depending on your perspective, the police and military forces in the city are intimidating the civilians as part of an ongoing, years-long pattern of hostility between the police and the people of Baltimore, or the streets of Baltimore are being made unsafe by rioters and looters, and only the authorities called in to contain them and enforce the curfew are able to maintain order.
But regardless of your perspective, generally speaking, Whole Foods wants your money. The same is true of every corporation, whose primary responsibility is to the shareholders, who are more interested in the security of their investment than they are in making a political statement, which is why situations like this tend to be downright toxic to brands: Who wants to risk alienating their customers by taking a side in a divisive political situation when it’s just as easy to stay out of it?
All of which makes the photos that Whole Foods’ Baltimore locations shared on Facebook yesterday surprising. The company posted a photo of armed Guardsmen, rifles in hand and decked out in camo, proudly displaying a Whole Foods cooler, above a caption that explains that the two Baltimore stores partnered “to make sandwiches for the men and women keeping Baltimore safe. We are so thankful to have them here and they’re pumped for Turkey & Cheese!”
The photo was shared on Twitter by Zoe Samudzi, and it quickly circulated—at the moment, it’s got over 1,700 retweets—with a lot of frustrated voices commenting on the photo. Some of those voices noted that Baltimore, which canceled school (and thus school lunches for thousands of students), has more hungry people in it than just the soldiers in town.
Whole Foods can certainly donate sandwiches to anyone it chooses, and it’s hard to imagine that many people would be particularly outraged to learn that the company had decided to offer some turkey and cheese to the Guard units in the area—but the fact that Whole Foods was inclined to boast about which side it was on in a complex protest involving race and police violence at a time in America when those subjects are incredibly divisive is surprising.
Predictably, the reaction to the photo fell within the typical culture-war bounds: on conservative sites like Twitchy and TheBlaze, the enthusiasm for the store that, according a 2014 study, the most liberal Americans shop at is suddenly through the roof.
Whole Foods since deleted the photo from Facebook, explaining to ABC News that “we removed the post because it did not accurately reflect all our local stores are doing to feed people across this city, especially children. Again, we love our community, and will continue to support our city in the days to come, as we always do, and extend our heartfelt sympathy to those affected.”
The company has continued to push that point on Twitter, explaining to critics that in addition to feeding troops, it’s also been feeding kids—and has been for a while.
@Race_Daniels We’re providing meals & snacks to Baltimore kids by partnering w/rec centers that we already work closely w/ across the city.
— Whole Foods Market (@WholeFoods) April 29, 2015
All of which is to say that the issue here is more one of optics and associations than an issue of priorities. Situations like the one in Baltimore are extremely contentious, and while sentiments like “support the troops” have typically been blandly inoffensive enough for companies to jump on them without worrying about their brand, the Whole Foods Facebook post highlights just how differently some Americans see a photo like that from others. One person’s group of heroes “keeping Baltimore safe” is another’s military occupation, and it’s no surprise that people who saw the soldiers differently from how the Whole Foods staff did had such a potent reaction.