Even as the country slowly drifts further and further away from the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—two African American men who were shot by the police earlier this month, seemingly without provocation—an air of distrust and unease has hung around many American cities. In the weeks since the killings, however, fast-food restaurants have become unlikely arenas where tensions between the police and the communities they serve have boiled over into subtle confrontations.
Two weeks ago—when the deaths of Sterling and Castile, as well as five police officers in Dallas, Texas, were still especially raw—employees at a Zaxby's in North Carolina were accused of tampering with an officer's food. And last week, a Taco Bell in Alabama made national headlines after a worker was fired for refusing to serve cops.
"We don't serve law enforcement," the employee said, "and you need to leave."
But in a period when racial tensions are as high as they've been since the beating of Rodney King in the 1990s—perhaps even since the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s—is refusing to serve police officers a legitimate form of non-violent protest, or a foolish lashing out of anger directed at the wrong people?
So far, fast-food chains and police departments have of course taken the latter position. Earlier this week, an employee at a McDonald's in Brenham, Texas was promptly fired for refusing serve an off-duty officer with his family.
"We're not judging McDonald's and their employees based on the action of this one worker,"Craig Goodman, a local police chief, told KHOU. "Just like we ask the community and the country not to judge our police officers because other officers make bad decisions."
On Thursday, two more fast-food employees were fired for similar behavior, refusing to serve officers at Noodles & Company, a restaurant chain in Alexandria, Virginia.
"Discrimination of any kind is not permitted at Noodles & Company," the restaurant said in a statement to Fortune. "The views and actions of these individuals are in no way reflective of the Company or team at our Alexandria location."
Correction: An earlier version of this article referenced the "killing" of Rodney King in the 1990s. The beating of King by Los Angeles police officers was caught on videotape in 1991. King died in 2012 at his home in Rialto, California.