On 12 April 2018, two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were at the Center City Starbucks store in Philadelphia in the United States. According to the men they arrived at the store, Nelson asked the manager if he could use the bathroom, and the manager said that the bathrooms were only for paying customers. A company official has reiterated that this is a policy of the store.
The men then returned to their table and were approached by the manager who asked if she could help them. The men told the manager that they were waiting for a business meeting. Two minutes after their arrival, the manager reported the men to the police, stating that they were “refusing to make a purchase or leave”. Soon after, the police arrived and arrested the two men. A customer captured the arrest in a video on their mobile phone which has since been circulated on the internet. The men were taken to jail cells and released after midnight, upon the District Attorney’s decision not to prosecute them for trespass.
The arrest generated a significant response from the community. In the days following the incident, protesters gathered outside the shop and then stood in front of the counter with posters whilst chanting slogans.
Kevin Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks, admitted that the suspicion which led to the arrest was due to their race and that he was ‘embarrassed’ and ‘ashamed’ of this. He publicly apologised for the incident and described its result as a ‘reprehensible outcome’. Johnson sought to reassure employees and customers that Starbucks ‘stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling’. Starbucks released a media statement indicating that the CEO and people involved in the incident were engaging in discussions to ensure that the incident facilitated ‘positive social change’.
Another media statement revealed that in the days after the incident, the CEO and his leadership team engaged with the community to determine ‘what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it’. In particular, Starbucks decided to close all of their company-owned retail stores and corporate offices in the United States on the afternoon of 29 May 2018 to carry out racial-bias education. Whilst the closures caused significant financial losses, the CEO asserted that it was an ‘investment in our people and our company’.
The men who were arrested are demanding that changes be made. They have allegedly had a meeting with the CEO and discussed the implementation of a Bill of Rights poster in stores, as well as new policies for customer ejections and racial discrimination.
Starbucks maintains that the business is founded on a culture of diversity and inclusion. In fact, it claims to create an inclusive environment through networks such as the Black Partner Network which is designed to allow employees to ‘share the African American experience’. Starbucks has apparently started reviewing its training and systems to ensure that its stores continue to reflect the company’s Mission and Values.