Starbucks, which has touted its progressive values and its “social impact” agenda, faces fierce criticism and calls for a boycott after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store, sparking accusations of racial profiling over what the company’s chief executive called 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. A store manager had asked the two men to leave after they asked to use the bathroom but had not made any purchases, police said. The men declined to leave and said they were waiting for a friend, their attorney later said. The manager then called 911 for assistance, the company said.
The confrontation was captured on a video viewed more than 8 million times on social media, fueling the backlash, which drew responses from Philadelphia’s mayor, the city’s police commissioner and now the chief executive of the biggest coffee house chain in the world.
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.
“Creating an environment that is both safe and welcoming for everyone is paramount for every store. 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.”
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 of lack of evidence of a crime, she said, adding that the Starbucks manager was white.
The incident is a dramatic turn for a company that has positioned itself as a progressive corporate leader and touts “diversity and inclusion” – efforts that have also drawn its share of criticism. Last year, the company vowed to hire 10,000 refugees, drawing calls for a boycott, mostly from conservatives who said they should focus on native-born Americans and military veterans (though Starbucks started an initiative in 2013 to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses).
Wimmer said the man whom the two men were there to meet, Andrew Yaffe, runs a real estate development firm and said he wanted to meet the men to discuss business investment opportunities. In the video, he arrives to tell police that 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.”
Melissa DePino, who recorded the viral video of the incident, told Philadelphia magazine that the men did not escalate the situation. “These guys never raised their voices. They never did anything remotely aggressive,” she said.
Cellphone videos, including DePino’s, show the men sitting and calmly speaking with officers.
Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, highlighted the company’s role in the incident in a statement on Saturday. He noted that the omnipresent coffee shops are known for being community hubs of people who do not necessarily buy anything, suggesting that the manager’s actions may have been motivated by race.
“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,” Kenney said. “Like all retail establishments in our city, Starbucks should be a place where everyone is treated the same, no matter the color of their skin.”
The company response, he said, was not enough, and he 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.
Kenney said little about the response of his police force beyond mentioning an ongoing review from Police Commissioner Richard Ross.
Ross, a black man, 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 that he is aware of implicit bias and that his force provides training, but he did not say whether he believed it applied in this case. He added that 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.
The moment has drawn comparisons to civil disobedience protests during the civil rights movement, when black Americans’ refusals to leave segregated lunch counters were met with police force.
An employee said that Starbucks policy was to refuse use of the bathrooms to nonpaying members of the public and that the men were asked to leave, according to Ross. A Starbucks official speaking on background told The Washington Post that there is no companywide policy on the issue, leaving the procedure to be decided by local managers. The manager wanted police assistance to remove the two men but regretted that the incident escalated into an arrest, the official said.
The official acknowledged that the incident is at odds with what many people have routinely done at a Starbucks without drawing suspicion or calls to police. The stores are “community” hubs, the official said, where people often drop in to use the WiFi or chat with friends and do not necessarily order anything.