Protesters demonstrate Monday inside a Center City Starbucks, where two black men were arrested, in Philadelphia. (Reuters/Mark Makela)
The chief executive of Starbucks on Monday called for “unconscious bias” training for store managers and apologized for what he called “reprehensible” circumstances that led to the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store last week.
CEO Kevin Johnson said in an interview on “Good Morning America” that the company was reviewing the actions of the store manager who had called the police. Johnson said that “what happened to those two gentlemen was wrong.”
“My responsibility is to look not only to that individual but look more broadly at the circumstances that set that up just to ensure that never happens again,” Johnson told interviewer Robin Roberts.
The manager who called the police on the two men no longer works at Starbucks, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper described a “mutual” decision between the manager and the company.
Protests continued on Monday at the Starbucks where the men were arrested, with crowds initially gathered outside only to be driven inside from heavy rains. “Good Morning America” described the protests inside the Starbucks as “a stand-in,” with NPR reporting there were chants of “Starbucks coffee is anti-black.”
At around 6 a.m. Monday, an Inquirer reporter tweeted that roughly 40 protesters were at the Starbucks in a relatively upscale neighborhood of the city. One person in the crowd hoisted a sign that read “Is she fired or nah?” referring to the store manager who called the police. Others chanted “anti-blackness anywhere is anti-blackness everywhere.”
Rosalind Brewer, Starbucks’ chief operating officer, referred to the company’s call for unconscious bias training among store managers in a morning interview with NPR and called the incident a “teachable moment for all of us.” She said that as an African American executive with a 23-year-old African American son, she found the cellphone videos taken of the Thursday afternoon incident painful to watch.
“It would be easy for us to say that this was a one-employee situation, but I have to tell you, it’s time for us to, myself included, take personal responsibility here and do the best that we can to make sure we do everything we can,” Brewer told NPR.
At least two cellphone videos captured the tense moment when at least six Philadelphia Police Department officers stood over two seated black men, asking them to leave. One officer said that the men were not complying and were being arrested for trespassing.
“Why would they be asked to leave?” Andrew Yaffe, who runs a real estate development firm and wanted to discuss business investment opportunities with the two men, can be heard asking on a video. “Does anybody else think this is ridiculous?” he asked people nearby. “It’s absolute discrimination.”
The two unidentified men were taken out in handcuffs soon after. The men were held for nearly nine hours before being released, said Lauren Wimmer, an attorney who represented the men over the weekend. No charges were filed, authorities said.
One of the videos of the arrest rocketed across social media, with more than 9 million views by Monday morning.
Benjamin Waxman, a spokesman for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, said over the weekend that the office decided that there “wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge [the men] with a crime.”
On Monday morning, Johnson said there are some scenarios that warrant a police call — including threats and other disturbances — but that in this case, “it was completely inappropriate to engage the police.”
After the arrest, the police were criticized for their handling of the situation. Police Commissioner Richard Ross addressed the incident on Facebook Live on Saturday, saying that one or both of the men asked to use the restroom but had not purchased anything. An employee said Starbucks company policy was to refuse the use of the bathrooms to non-customers and asked the men to leave, according to Ross. The employee called the police when they refused.
“These officers did absolutely nothing wrong. They followed policy; they did what they were supposed to do. They were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen,” Ross said. “And instead, they got the opposite back.” Ross said police arrested the men after they refused three requests to leave.
Ross, a black man, said he was aware of issues of implicit bias — unconscious discrimination based on race — but did not say whether he believed it applied in this case. He said the incident underscores the need for more body-worn cameras to present different perspectives of police responses. The officers were not wearing cameras, he said.
The police department said Thursday that it was investigating and would comment once more facts were known. It was not immediately clear whether Ross’s statement means the investigation has concluded.
Starbucks does not have a companywide policy on asking members of the public to leave, a company official said. The company leaves safety and customer service protocol decisions up to store managers, said a company official who declined to give a name to freely describe internal discussions. Managers may leave restroom doors unlocked or add key code entries if they feel the store is more at risk for criminal behavior. A store in the same area of Philadelphia was hit with an armed robbery recently, the official said.
The Starbucks official acknowledged that the incident is at odds with a common practice at Starbucks that usually does not provoke 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 without necessarily buying anything.
Wimmer, a white woman, said she spent a good portion of her time in law school in Starbucks without buying much and never had a problem with store employees. The incident was about race, Wimmer said. She suggested an experiment: Go to a Starbucks and assess the demographics of people sitting there.
“Who is the manager going to call and say, ‘Please leave?’” she asked.