Two black men were arrested waiting at a Starbucks. Now the company, police are on the defensive.
Starbucks, which once asked baristas to start a conversation about race with customers, faces fierce criticism after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store, sparking accusations of racial profiling over what the company’s chief executive now calls a “reprehensible” incident.
In a statement, CEO Kevin Johnson offered “our deepest apologies” to the two men on Saturday who were taken out of the store in handcuffs by at least six officers on Thursday. A store manager had asked the two men to leave after they attempted to use the bathroom but had not made any purchases, police said. The men said they were waiting for a friend, their attorney later said. The manager then called 911 for assistance, the company said.
The police confrontation was captured on a video that has been viewed more than 8 million times on social media, fueling a backlash and drawing responses from the city’s police commissioner and mayor.
“I am heartbroken to see Philadelphia in the headlines for an incident that — at least based on what we know at this point — appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018,” Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, said.
The two men were taken to a police station, where they were fingerprinted and photographed, their attorney Lauren Wimmer told The Washington Post on Saturday. Her clients, who declined to be identified, were released eight hours later because the district attorney found no evidence of a crime, she said, adding the Starbucks manager was white.
Wimmer said the man whom the two men were there to meet, Andrew Yaffe, runs a real estate development firm and said Yaffe wanted to meet the men to discuss business investment opportunities.
Multiple witnesses recorded the incident on cellphones. In one video, Yaffe arrives to tell police the two men were waiting for him.
“Why would they be asked to leave?” Yaffe says. “Does anybody else think this is ridiculous?” he asks people nearby. “It’s absolute discrimination.” A woman chimes in off-camera: “They didn’t do anything.”
The two men appear to explain they are there to meet Yaffe. They remain seated and calmly speak with the authorities. An officer begins to clear chairs out of the way in apparent anticipation of an arrest. Yaffe suggests they will go somewhere else.
“They’re not free to leave. We’re done with that,” an officer replies. “We asked them to leave the first time.” The two men stand up to be cuffed. They do not appear to resist.
Melissa DePino, who recorded the viral video of the incident, told Philadelphia magazine the men did not escalate the situation. “These guys never raised their voices. They never did anything remotely aggressive,” she said. In the video, there appear to be open tables for any potential waiting customers.
Thursday’s incident is a dramatic turn for a company that has positioned itself as a progressive corporate leader that touts “diversity and inclusion” — efforts that have also drawn its share of criticism. Last year, the company vowed to hire 10,000 refugees in a move that drew calls for a boycott mostly from conservatives. In 2015, its “Race Together” initiative for baristas to discuss racial issues floundered after the company found the public wanted fast coffee — not deep conversations about police killings of unarmed black men.
Now Starbucks has been forced to bring race back into public discussion outside its own terms, following a moment that has drawn comparisons to nonviolent protests during the civil rights movement when black Americans’ refusals to leave segregated lunch counters were met with police force.
Local Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif organized a protest of the store on Sunday. He told a Philly.com reporter he rejects Johnson’s apology, saying it was “about saving face.” If the company was serious, it would have fired the manager who called 911, he said.
Johnson vowed an investigation and a review of its customer-relations protocols, and he said he wanted to meet the two men for a face-to-face apology.
“Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome — the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong,” Johnson said.
“Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.”
Mayor Kenney directed the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to review Starbucks policies and determine whether the company would benefit from training for implicit bias — unconscious discrimination based on race. His office will communicate with Starbucks further to discuss, he said.
Kenney said little about the response of his police force beyond mentioning an ongoing review from Police Commissioner Richard Ross. Police have also been criticized for how they handled the situation. The department did not return comment Saturday asking what laws they suspected were being violated and if any administrative actions have been taken during the investigation.
Ross, who is black, defended the actions of the officers in a Facebook Live video on Saturday, saying the officers asked the men three times to leave.
“The police did not just happen upon this event — they did not just walk into Starbucks to get a coffee,” he said. “They were called there, for a service, and that service had to do with quelling a disturbance, a disturbance that had to do with trespassing. These officers did absolutely nothing wrong.”
Ross said he is aware of implicit bias and his force provides training, but he did not say whether he believed it applied in this case. He added police recruits are sent to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to learn more about the struggle of blacks and minorities throughout history.
“We want them to know about the atrocities that were, in fact, committed by policing around the world,” Ross said.