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‘They can’t be here for us’: Black men arrested at Starbucks tell their story for the first time

The two black men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks settled with the city for $1 on May 2. The city will donate $200,000 to support young entrepreneurs. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

One week after they were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the two black men seen in a cellphone video viewed more than 11 million times went on “Good Morning America” Thursday to describe how arriving 10 minutes early to a business meeting landed them in handcuffs.

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, along with their attorney, Stewart Cohen, spoke with GMA’s Robin Roberts to describe their encounter with the white Starbucks manager who called 911 on them, as well as with the police who arrived soon afterward. Starbucks executives, including the company’s executive chairman, Howard Schultz, and its chief executive, Kevin Johnson, have met with the men to personally apologize and have appeared in television interviews in the wake of protests outside the Philadelphia location.

But Thursday was the first time Nelson and Robinson publicly told their story. It was also the first time Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross took to a podium to significantly walk back comments from over the weekend in which he said the officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.” Ross personally apologized and said that if he had done anything to worsen race relations, “shame on me.”

“I want to make sure this situation doesn’t happen again,” Robinson, 23, said. “What I want is for a young man or young men to not be traumatized by this; and instead, motivated and inspired.”

The men said they arrived at the Center City Starbucks at 4:35 p.m. for a 4:45 business meeting. Immediately upon walking in, Nelson asked the manager if he could use the restroom. The manager said the restrooms were for paying customers only.

“And I just left it at that,” Nelson, 23, said.

Robinson said that after Nelson got back to the table, the manager came over to their table to ask if she could help with any drinks or water. Robinson said they had water bottles with them and were waiting for a meeting.

At 4:37 — two minutes after the men arrived — the manager called the police to report that “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Officers arrived at 4:41, according to tapes released by the Philadelphia police this week.

Robinson said that when he saw police arrive, he thought, “They can’t be here for us.”

Starbucks arrests: Who gets to decide whether you’re a patron or a trespasser?

Nelson said the police told him and Robinson they had to leave without any discussion about what was happening between them and the manager. Then they were arrested. Robinson said they weren’t read any rights or told why they were being arrested.

The charges — trespassing and creating a disturbance — were dropped that night.

Cohen, who appeared in the segment alongside Nelson and Robinson, said that from the video of the men’s arrest, “the facts speak for themselves.”

“There’s not a single witness that says that these men were misbehaving, and you can see and hear that in the video,” Cohen said.

Robinson said that during his arrest, he thought about his family and community and that he was “just trying to process the situation.”

Nelson told the Associated Press that he feared for his life.

“Anytime I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind,” Nelson said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Roberts asked Robinson about Starbucks’s policy that restricts nonpaying customers from using the restroom or sitting in the store, as well as the fact that the police told him and Nelson to leave.

“I understand that rules are rules, but what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong,” Robinson said. “That’s in any situation, whether there’s race involved or anything.”

A Starbucks spokesperson, Jaime Riley, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that “in this particular store, the guidelines were that partners must ask unpaying customers to leave the store, and police were to be called if they refused.”

“In this situation,” Riley said, “the police should never have been called. And we know we have to review the practices and guidelines to help ensure it never happens again.”

Cohen said he and his clients suggested that along with Starbucks, they engage in a mediation with a retired federal judge in Philadelphia. Cohen said Starbucks agreed to that proposal, which necessitates that the conversations between executives and Nelson and Robinson remain confidential.

The AP reported that the men are in mediation proceedings with Starbucks to implement changes like the posting of a customer bill of rights in stores; new policies regarding customer ejections and racial profiling; and independent investigations of complaints of profiling or discrimination from customers and employees.

Nelson said he hoped his experience could be used as a “steppingstone” to future progress.

“Everyone is blind to it, but they know what’s going on,” Nelson said. “Just really taking those actions and putting them into place. And helping people understand this is not just a black people thing; this is a people thing.”

Nelson and Robinson have been best friends since the fourth grade, they told the AP. Robinson has been a customer at the Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square since he was 15, the AP reported.

At a news conference Thursday, Ross offered a series of apologies to Nelson, Robinson and the community, days after he announced in a Facebook Live video over the weekend that the officers followed policy, were professional and “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

“I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law, and not that they didn’t do anything wrong,” Ross said. “Words are very important.”

Ross said he genuinely did not know that it was common practice for people to sit in a Starbucks without making any purchases, and that it’s possible the officers who made the arrests didn’t know either. Now that he knows, Ross said he understands why Nelson and Robinson “were appalled when they were asked to leave.”

“For this reason, me, I apologize,” Ross said.

Ross said his department has already completed a new policy to guide officers on how to deal with similar situations, noting that no such policy existed before “because it is nearly impossible to have a policy for every criminal or any other violation.” He did not give specifics behind that policy, saying they would be provided “at a later date.”

He also noted that the officers originally dispatched to the Starbucks were trying to prevent anyone from getting hurt, which is why they requested backup.

“The intent was not to intimidate, it was actually to do something different,” Ross said.

Ross said that issues surrounding race were not lost on him, nor were “the optics.”

“Messaging is important and I failed miserably in this regard,” Ross said. “I am flawed like many others folks, but that is still no excuse. We will continue to acknowledge how race plays a factor and role in many things that we do.”

On Wednesday, Howard Schultz told Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” that he had met with the manager and that she “recognizes that perhaps that call should not have been made.” When the manager called the police, Schultz said, she probably thought they would come to her location and talk to the men about what they were doing inside.

“I think you have to say in looking at the tape that she demonstrated her own level of unconscious bias,” Schultz told King. “And in looking at the tape, you ask yourself whether or not that in fact was racial profiling.”

Also on Wednesday morning, Kevin Johnson appeared on Fox Business Network’s “Mornings With Maria” and talked about meeting with the men who were arrested.

“I had the opportunity to apologize to those two gentlemen for what happened to them,” he said. “They didn’t deserve that.” Johnson also met with Philadelphia’s mayor, the police commissioner and other community leaders. On Wednesday, Johnson and Schultz met with about 40 local clergy and lay leaders.

On Tuesday, Starbucks announced that it would close 8,000 U.S. stores for an afternoon next month for racial-bias training for 175,000 employees. That announcement came after days of protests at the Philadelphia Starbucks and a personal apology from Johnson.

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