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Howard Schultz confronted by woman who shared viral Philadelphia Starbucks arrest video at Free Library event

Howard Schultz's remarks in response to the woman who shared the viral video came the day after he said 'I honestly don't see color' when asked about the Philly incident at a separate event.

Protesters gathered outside the Starbucks on 18th & Spruce Streets last April.
Protesters gathered outside the Starbucks on 18th & Spruce Streets last April.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The woman who first shared the video of two black men being arrested at a Starbucks in Center City last year confronted the company’s former executive chairman, Howard Schultz, at an event Wednesday night in Philadelphia, and he acknowledged that the manager of the store might not have called authorities if the two had been white.

Melissa DePino, who posted the video of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson being handcuffed and led out of the store at 18th and Spruce Streets after they declined to purchase anything, attended Schultz’s book tour stop at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

During the question session, DePino interjected after Schultz, a potential independent candidate for president, said the manager contacted police after she “felt a threat." DePino, identifying herself and her connection to the video, said Schultz was not outlining the event correctly, according to video of the exchange from NBC10.

“You are not describing the incident accurately, and the way you are describing it is perpetuating the problem," she said. "And I know you want to be part of the solution, and I hope you will be, but when you say there were words between the two of them and she felt threatened, that didn’t happen. I saw it with my own two eyes. I was there.”

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Schultz, who acknowledged he was not there and told DePino that he had “great respect for what [she] saw,” went on to comment on his handling of the situation before he addressed it publicly at the time, describing a private conversation he had with the manager.

“I was advised before a nationally televised interview with Gayle King not to say something that I knew was not true. And what was true was, I spent time with the manager one-on-one, and I just asked her a simple question, and I asked her if those two young men were white, would she have called the police? And to her credit, she said, ‘Probably not.' So, once I heard that, I knew that what occurred was a form of racial profiling.”

Schultz was at the library to discuss his book, From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America, with William Kristol, founder and former editor of the Weekly Standard. Schultz said he was advised to not make a comment about possible racial profiling on national TV immediately after the incident, out of fear it would damage the company and brand. He said he felt a “moral obligation” to say the truth, however.

“I may not have been there, but I can tell you on a personal level, on a very emotional level, I was deeply, deeply concerned about what happened, and we’ve done everything possible to try and learn from it and get better.”

DePino said in an interview Thursday that she wrote a question on a card to be submitted during the Q&A session, but felt compelled to stand and say something because she and Michelle Saahene, the woman whose voice is heard in the video saying, “They didn’t do anything,” have started an organization called From Privilege to Progress, which urges white people to be allies with black people. In the case of Wednesday night’s presentation, Schultz, who is white, was speaking to a predominantly white audience, DePino said.

“I couldn’t just talk the talk, I had to walk the walk," DePino said. “It was a complete misrepresentation of what happened, and it also perpetuated this racist narrative that [Nelson and Robinson] had done something to make her feel threatened.”

Saahene wasn’t at the library event, but said Schultz’s recounting of his conversation with the manager made her rethink Starbucks’ response.

“They said she wouldn’t have called the cops if these men were white," Saahene said. "Yet in the same conversation, he said she felt threatened. How do you not connect the dots? She didn’t feel threatened based on any type of logical or rational explanation. It was their color.”

DePino said that while Schultz was using “catchphrases” such as “implicit bias,” "he clearly doesn’t understand what that is.”

“There was a level of ignorance, and that is irresponsible for a person in his position. He clearly didn’t do his own training,” she added, referring to the implicit bias training that Starbucks provided to about 180,000 employees nationwide after the April 12, 2018, arrests.

The store manager contacted police after Nelson asked to use the bathroom but was denied access because he wasn’t a customer. Nelson and Robinson, who said they were at the store for a business meeting, declined to make a purchase or leave, according to the 911 call released shortly after the incident.

At least six police officers arrived at the Starbucks, and the two men were led out in handcuffs. The police incident report, obtained by the Inquirer, said the two men cursed at the store manager and refused to leave even though officers asked “multiple times.”

DePino shared a video of the incident on Twitter, which sparked a national outrage, public apologies, and the racial-bias training program at Starbucks stores across the nation.

The city later announced that it had reached an agreement with the two men, agreeing to pay them $1 and to set up a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs. Separately, Starbucks announced that its agreement with the men included a “financial settlement” for an undisclosed sum, as well as “continued listening and dialogue between parties and specific action and opportunity.”

Schultz stepped down from his position as executive chairman last summer, he recently said on 60 Minutes that he was considering a possible campaign for president.

The library appearance wasn’t the first time his remarks on the incident at the Philadelphia store have drawn attention this week. On Tuesday, Schultz fielded questions from the audience at a CNN town hall event in Houston, telling a woman who asked whether he thought the coffee chain’s nationwide bias training was effective that he doesn’t “see color.”

“As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy, and I honestly don’t see color now,” said Schultz, who is from Brooklyn, N.Y. He called the arrest at the Center City store “something that we learned a great deal from."

The question was asked by Orgena Keener, a black woman and owner of Kaffeine Coffee, an independent Houston coffee shop, who told the Guardian that she was satisfied by Schultz’s answer.

“He might not see color, but I don’t think that goes for all of his employees,” Keener told the news outlet. “Here’s the deal. We all see color, we just don’t judge. It might not go to the second level of judging and stereotyping, but we all do see color, it’s kind of hard not to. It’s just how you take it after that.”

On social media, Schultz’s response drew swift criticism, as users suggested his comments on not seeing color equated to not seeing the problems faced by black Americans. Others compared his comments to racist remarks parodied on The Colbert Report and The Office.

Research suggests color blindness does not exist, and many sociologists argue that the refusal to take public note of race allows discriminatory practices to continue.

At an appearance this month in Chicago, Schultz also mentioned the Philadelphia arrests.

“I was absolutely apoplectic that something like that could happen in a Starbucks store,” he said, adding that he worried that “this is going to stay with us and stain the company forever.”

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.