The black men who were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks last week have broken their silence to speak out about the ‘racist’ incident that has angered many across the country.
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two men who became best friends in the fourth grade, were taken in handcuffs from the Starbucks in Philadelphia’s tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood on April 12, where Robinson has been a customer since he was 15.
The video, recorded on a white customer’s cellphone video, galvanized people around the country who saw the exchange as modern-day racism. In the week since, the men have met with Starbucks’ CEO and have started pushing for lasting changes to ensure what happened to them doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson, right, are the two black men who were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks last week, in what many believe was a ‘racist’ incident
The two men spoke out for the first time in interviews with Good Morning America and the Associated Press on Thursday, saying they showed up to the Starbucks 10 minutes before a 4:45pm meeting.
As soon as they arrived, Nelson went to ask to use the restroom while his friend found them a table
But a manager, Holly Hylton, told him that the restrooms ‘were for paying customers only,’ so he decided to take his seat and wait until their meeting.
‘I just left it at that at that moment,’ he told Good Morning America.
Soon after however, Robinson says the manager came out from behind the register to speak to them.
On Thursday, Nelson, left, and Robinson, right, spoke out about the incident for the first time. The two are pictured above on Wednesday
The two, friends since the fourth grade, are in mediation with Starbucks to make sure a similar incident never happens again
Nelson and Robinson are being represented by lawyer Stewart Cohen (pictured above on Wednesday)
‘We’re at the table, we sit down we’re just talking amongst each other. She comes from around the register and walks up to ask if she can help us with anything, can we start with some drinks or water or something like that,’ Robinson says.
Robinson says they declined and said they were ‘just waiting for a meeting’ and ‘we’ll be out really quick’.
But about two minutes after they arrived at the cafe, the manager called 911 and said that they were ‘refusing to make a purchase’.
When three officers arrived not long after, the two were certain that they were coming for someone else, since they knew they hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, they pointed out that they had never even been told to leave.
The officers came up to them and told them to leave immediately, not asking any questions about what had happened, Nelson said.
‘As soon as they approached us they just said we have to leave. There was no question of “was there a problem here between you and the manager?”‘ Nelson said.
The viral video that prompted the scandal showed police talking with the two black men while they were seated at a table. After several minutes they handcuffed the men and led them away
Robinson said the officers didn’t even explain what charges they were being arrested on.
‘We wasn’t read any rights. Nothing, just double lock handcuffs behind our backs and escorted out and put in a squad car,’ Robinson said.
Andrew Yaffe, the white local businessmen they were meeting, 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, confused and unsure of what to think or what might happen next.
Manager Holly Hylton (pictured) is no longer employed by Starbucks after the incident
‘When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it?’ Nelson told the Associated Press. ‘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.’
Robinson said it didn’t really hit him what was happening until he was being handcuffed.
‘I was just trying to process the situation to myself at the time because I’m thinking abot my family, that I have my community, so in that moment I’m trying to process what’s going on because it didn’t really hit me what was going on – that it was real – until I’m being double locked and my hands are behind my back,’ he said.
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.
Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. has said the location where the arrests occurred has a policy that restrooms are for paying customers only.
Starbucks founder Howard Schultz told CBS This Morning: ‘I’m embarrassed, ashamed. I think what occurred was reprehensible at every single level’
The incident sparked accusations of racial profiling at the coffee chain and prompted activists to start protesting at the Philadelphia store on April 16
Nelson and Robinson spent hours in a jail cell with no outside contact and no sense of what would happen next. They were released after midnight, when the district attorney declined to prosecute them for trespassing. They had no idea the video of their arrests was making the rounds on the internet.
The day after their arrests, they thought about what to do next.
‘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?’
Robinson, still focused on the previous day’s business deal, called Yaffe to reschedule. Yaffe told him about the video and the traction it had gotten.
Over the weekend, attention and outrage over the video grew, prompting a protest at the local Starbucks restaurant and a national boycott. By Monday, the men were set to meet with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to discuss what happened.
Johnson has responded quickly to public outcry around the arrests, calling them ‘reprehensible,’ apologizing and ordering stores closed for one day to undergo mandatory training to tackle unconscious bias.
Nelson and Robinson said they’re looking for more lasting results and are in mediation proceedings with Starbucks to implement changes, including the posting in stores of a customer bill of rights; the adoption of new policies regarding customer ejections, racial profiling and racial discrimination; and independent investigations of complaints of profiling or discrimination from customers and employees. They do not plan to sue at this time.
Robinson said he appreciates the public support the men have received but anger and boycotting Starbucks are not the solution.
‘We need a different type of action … not words,’ he said. ‘It’s a time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.’