Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two black men at the center of what has turned into a nation-wide #BoycottStarbucks campaign prompting the temporary closing of 8,000 stores on May 29 for what the CEO says is some much-needed “unconscious bias” training, have finally broken their silence over what exactly happened last Thursday in a Philadelphia Starbucks. At one point, Nelson told the Associated Press, he wondered if he was going to make it home alive.
Nelson and Robinson, 23-year-old entrepreneurs who have been friends since fourth grade, met at the Starbucks to work out a potential real estate deal with Andrew Yaffe, a white local businessman, that they told AP “could have a positive impact on a whole ladder of people, lives, families.”
Focused on the business at hand, Nelson said he simply brushed off the store manager, Holly, telling them that store policy limits use of the restroom to paying customers. When asked if they needed help, the two men said that they were waiting to have a business meeting.
The two men hardly noticed when police officers entered the cafe, until the officers started heading their way. ”That’s when we knew she called the police on us,” said Nelson.
“We were there for a real reason, a real deal that we were working on,” said Robinson. “We put in a lot of time, energy, effort. … We were at a moment that could have a positive impact on a whole ladder of people, lives, families. So I was like, ‘No, you’re not stopping that right now.'”
Robinson told AP that he was genuinely afraid for his life at points during the arrest. “Anytime I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind. You never know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Yaffe arrived as the two men were being handcuffed and demanded an explanation. The two entrepreneurs say they didn’t resist arrest and tried to handle the situation with “class.” “When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it?” said Nelson. “You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class. That was the choice we had.”
In a Facebook post, Police Commissioner Richard Ross defended the actions of the officers, saying they had acted professionally and treated the two men respectfully; Nelson and Robinson, he said, did not gave the officers “the opposite back.”
AP notes that neither Robinson or Nelson have any prior arrest records.
Robinson said he immediately began to question his own actions. “I feel like I fell short. I’m trying to think of something I did wrong, to put not just me but my brother, my lifelong friend … in this situation,” he said.
After a few hours in a jail cell with no outside contact or information about what was happening, the two men were released just after midnight. The store did not want to press charges and the district attorney declined prosecuting for trespassing.
Nelson said after being released they began to consider how to respond. “How do you handle it? Do you stand up? Do you fight? Do you sit down and just watch everyone else fight for you? Do you let it slide, like we let everything else slide with injustice?”
By the weekend, the cell phone video had gone viral and #BoycottStarbucks was trending on Facebook, while protesters converged on the store where they were arrested. Saturday evening, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson issued a statement condemning what had taken place and vowing to commit to fighting racial bias.
The attorney representing Nelson and Robinson says they were racially profiled by the store, a violation of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. AP reports that the two men are currently in mediation proceedings with the company “to implement changes, including the posting in stores of a customer bill of rights; the adoption of new policies regarding customer ejections, racial profiling and racial discrimination; and independent investigations of complaints of profiling or discrimination from customers and employees.”
After his initial statement on Saturday, Johnson has engaged in a PR campaign to try to undo some of the damage to the brand, including appearing on “Good Morning America” on Monday to even more strongly decry the incident.
“I’ll say the circumstances surrounding the incident and the outcome at our store on Thursday were reprehensible,” he said. “So, clearly, there’s an opportunity for us to provide clarity and in addition to that I’d say there’s training, more training that we’re going to do with our store managers, not only around the guidelines but training around unconscious bias.”
Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz has also publicly addressed the situation and said that there is “no doubt” in his mind that the manager, who has since left the company, was acting out of racial bias.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the reason that they (police) were called was because they were African American,” Schultz told CBS This Morning Wednesday. “That’s not who Starbucks is.”
“The announcement we made yesterday about closing our stores, 8,000 stores closed, to do significant training with our people is just the beginning of what we will do to transform the way we do business and educate our people on unconscious bias,” Schultz said.