The two black men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks last week were handcuffed within minutes of entering the store. Records show the men entered at 4:35 p.m. and 911 was called at 4:37 p.m.
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Thursday and described their arrest. They said they went to Starbucks for a business meeting that they believed would change their lives.
Nelson thought nothing of it when he and his business partner, Robinson, were approached at their table and were asked if they needed help.
The 23-year-old entrepreneurs declined, explaining they were just waiting for a business meeting.
Two minutes after entering the store, a white store employee called 911.
“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.”
Nelson and Robinson were arrested for trespassing. No charges were filed.
Nelson and Robinson, black men who became best friends in the fourth grade, were taken in handcuffs from the Starbucks in Philadelphia’s tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, where Robinson has been a customer since he was 15.
Nelson said they had been working on the business meeting for months.
“We were there for a real reason, a real deal that we were working on,” Robinson explained. “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.'”
Nelson and Robinson originally were supposed to meet Andrew Yaffe, a white local businessman, at a Starbucks across town.
Yaffe showed up as the men were being handcuffed. He can be seen in the video demanding an explanation for the officers’ actions. Nelson and Robinson did not resist arrest.
“When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it?” Nelson said. “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.”
It was hardly their first encounter with police, a rite of passage that becomes a regular occurrence for many black men their age. But neither had been arrested before, setting them apart from many of their peers in the gritty southwest Philadelphia neighborhood where they grew up.
Robinson briefly wondered what he might’ve done to bring the moment on himself.
“I feel like I fell short,” he explained. “I’m trying to think of something I did wrong, to put not just me but my brother, my lifelong friend … in this situation.”
Attorney Stewart Cohen, representing Nelson and Robinson, said the men were illegally profiled. He pointed to Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in hotels, restaurants, theaters and other public accommodations.
Robinson said he thought about his loved ones and how the afternoon had taken such a turn as he was taken to jail. Nelson wondered if he’d make it home alive.
“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.”
Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, who is white, said what happened at the Starbucks “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”
On Monday, the two men met with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, who apologized.
“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.”
“You go from being someone who’s just trying to be an entrepreneur, having your own dreams and aspirations, and then this happens,” Nelson said. “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?”
The store employee who called 911 is no longer with the company. Starbucks has not said under what circumstances she left.
Starbucks plans to close its 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States for one afternoon in May to teach employees about racial bias. The training will be provided to about 175,000 workers.
It will be developed with guidance from experts including former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
On Wednesday, Johnson and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz met with Philadelphia church and community leaders.
Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of POWER, a group that helped organize the meeting, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Starbucks’ response.
In addition to the bias training, Starbucks leaders were pressed in the meeting on raising wages, on hiring workers who have been incarcerated and on their role in gentrifying neighborhoods.
“We are challenging them to take the lead in supporting racial justice organizations and speaking to other companies to join the cause,” Holston said.
Starbucks declined to discuss the meeting, but said through a spokesperson that “we are grateful to have these opportunities to talk with and listen to civic and community leaders this week in Philadelphia.”