Late last week, a clip of two black men being arrested inside a Philadelphia Starbucks went viral. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were seemingly arrested for sitting at a Starbucks waiting for a meeting; one had asked to use the restroom, but had been denied access after the manager informed him it was for paying customers only. Not long after, both men were arrested for trespassing, even though the manager hadn’t asked them to leave.
Predictably, protests have erupted outside that Starbucks location, and the incident has been treated as yet another example of the dangerous racial bias that black people have to deal with in the most innocuous of situations. Thursday, Nelson and Robinson spoke out for the first time and provided more details about their arrest during an interview on Good Morning America.
The men arrived at the Starbucks at 4:35, about 10 minutes early for their business meeting. Robinson immediately asked to use the bathroom, but was told that it was for paying customers only. He then went back to the table and chatted with Nelson. 911 records show the police were called at 4:37.
"I was thinking, they can't be here for us," Robinson said of the police. "It didn't really hit me what was going on, that it was real, till I was being double-locked with my hands behind my back."
Once police arrived, Nelson and Robinson were immediately told to leave the Starbucks. The officers did not ask Nelson or Robinson what the situation was or if they’d had an issue with the manager. They were neither told what they were being arrested for nor read their rights before being handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car.
Nelson and Robinson had been working up to their business meeting, about real estate, for months. "We're days away from changing our whole entire situation, our lives, and you about to sit here telling me I can't do that? You're not doing that." Robinson also noted, "I understand that rules are rules, but what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. That’s in any situation, whether there’s race involved or anything.”
Nelson and Robinson's lawyer pointed out that Starbucks publicly opens itself up as a meeting place.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson met with Nelson and Robinson on Monday to apologize. The men have chosen to not file a civil suit against the company and instead want to be part of the solution. Both sides have entered mediation with a retired federal judge.
"I want to make sure that this situation doesn't happen again," Robinson said. "What I want is for a young man, young men, to not be traumatized by this and instead motivated, inspired."
Johnson and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz met with Philadelphia church and community leaders on Wednesday, according to CNN Money. Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of POWER, a group that helped organize this meeting, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about Starbucks' response. The company has plans to close all 8,000 of its company-owned U.S. stores for one afternoon in May to provide racial bias training for 175,000 of its employees.
"We are challenging them to take the lead in supporting racial justice organizations and speaking to other companies to join the cause," Holston said. During the meeting, the leaders asked more of Starbucks than just bias training. They reportedly discussed raising wages, hiring workers who have been incarcerated, and the company's role in gentrifying neighborhoods.
“We are grateful to have these opportunities to talk with and listen to civic and community leaders this week in Philadelphia,” Starbucks told CNN through a representative.