Starbucks, Philly PD face protests over arrests of black men for "trespassing"

Racial profiling, or just enforcing bathroom rules? When two African-American men went into a Starbucks in Philadelphia and tried to use the restroom, store employees enforced the customers-only rule. When the pair remained in the restaurant, the manager asked them to leave, but they said they were waiting for a third man to begin a business meeting. The manager called police, who arrested them … as the third man arrived at the restaurant.

Now their attorney wants to know whether Starbucks enforces their policies as thoroughly with white customers, while CEO Kevin Johnson would like the whole mess to go away. Good luck with that! Protests have taken place outside the Starbucks in question, with more planned:

Attorney Stewart Cohen, who represents the two men, said this was a clear case of racial profiling.

“When I walk in and I don’t order anything and I’m dressed like this, no manager is calling the police on me,” Cohen told CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

“If they were white, would this have happened?” Miller asked.

“None of the white customers were asked to leave, and they were there a lot longer than those young men who were just there for a few minutes,” Cohen said.

Cell phone video shows two black men staying calm in their seats as officers repeatedly ordered them to leave. A third potential business partner arrives a few minutes later and offers to move their meeting somewhere else – but by then it was too late.

Johnson tried to head off this controversy last night by offering an abject apology and offering to meet with the two men:

“Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling,” Johnson said in a statement Saturday. “I hope to meet personally with the two men who were arrested to offer a face-to-face apology.”

Johnson said Starbucks’ “practices and training led to the bad outcome” with the two men being arrested.

“The basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong,” he said. “Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.”

The apology speaks for itself, but the explanation of the call, er, doesn’t. If the store manager didn’t want police to arrest the two men, why did he or she call police in the first place? To eject them? Well, fine, but what did the manager think would happen if the two men refused to leave after police arrived? The manager thought the two men were a threat of some sort after challenging them to buy something or hit the road shortly after they arrived. I’ve been in Starbucks a number of times and occasionally used the restroom before ordering, and I’ve never had anyone challenge me. How many times has this store called for police removal of other non-customers, and under what circumstances? Johnson had better get the data on that, because it’s going to be very, very relevant in any lawsuit that gets filed.

By claiming that the manager didn’t “intend” for the men to be arrested, it sounds as though Johnson wants to shift blame to the police. Police commissioner Richard Ross is having none of that:

Officers responded and asked the men three times “politely to leave the location because they were being asked to leave by employees because they were trespassing.” When the men again refused to leave, they were arrested “without incident,” Ross said.

The men were taken to a police station and released when it became clear Starbucks didn’t want to press charges.

“They did a service that they were called to do,” Ross said of the officers. “And if you think about it logically, that if a business calls and they say that someone is here that I no longer wish to be in my business, (officers) now have a legal obligation to carry out their duties. And they did just that.”

Ross, who is black, referenced his own experiences while making his case, saying, “As an African-American male, I am very aware of implicit bias.”

Exactly. While police might have enough leeway to determine that the situation wasn’t as the manager reported, he/she still wanted the two men out of the store, and they were still refusing to leave while acting reasonably enough to generate sympathy among the witnesses. Placing the two under arrest was likely their only option, and at least they did so professionally while on camera.

Johnson wants to have a face-to-face meeting with the men arrested. It’s more likely that the next face-to-face meeting will be between Johnson’s attorneys and attorneys representing the two men, and that the latter will get more than a venti café latté as a result. As of now, though, the only change is that the manager no longer works at that Starbucks, which the company says was a “mutual” decision. How long before the manager gets his own lawyer?

Update: The meeting between Johnson and the two (presumably former) customers has taken place, according to CBS. No word on whether frappuccinos were served.