Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Rashon Nelson, arrested at Philadelphia Starbucks, is praised by neighbors, frat brothers

Nelson, 23, was one of two men seen on video being arrested at a Center City Starbucks last week for sitting in the store without making a purchase - a video that went viral and sparked widespread outrage, protests alleging racism, investigations, and calls for boycotts because both men are black.

Rashon Nelson in a Facebook photo, left, and an image from a video of his arrest
Rashon Nelson in a Facebook photo, left, and an image from a video of his arrestRead moreFacebook (left); @missydepino on Twitter

To his neighbors in the Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia, and to his fraternity brothers nationwide, Rashon Nelson is a good guy.

Nelson, 23, was one of two men seen on video being arrested last week at a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks for sitting in the store without making a purchase — a video that went viral and sparked widespread outrage, protests alleging racism, investigations, and calls for boycotts because both men are black.

A spokeswoman for Omega Psi Phi Fraternity confirmed Wednesday that Nelson was a member of the frat's Bloomsburg University chapter and was involved in the Starbucks incident.

Nelson has avoided the spotlight since his arrest. No one answered the door at his home Tuesday or Wednesday. A lawyer representing both men held a news conference Tuesday at which he declined even to identify them. Lawyers did not respond to inquiries Wednesday.

Neighbors on the block of Bonnaffon Street where Nelson grew up said they had neither seen him nor heard from him since last Thursday's arrest, but they spoke highly of him Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm sure his lawyers told him not to say anything because this is a civil rights case," said John Gossett, 48, who lives two houses from Nelson's home.

"Rashon is a good kid, he's a good father, and he's not a thug," added Gossett, who was Nelson's middle-school football coach. Nelson went to Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School but played for the now-closed George Pepper Middle School, Gossett said.

Omega Psi Phi's national leader, Grand Basileus Antonio F. Knox Sr., issued a statement Tuesday in support of Nelson, although he did not identify him by name. Knox called him a "remarkable example of resilient courage in the face of undeserved fire."

"This was very clearly racial injustice," Knox said, "but maybe this case will be the catalyst to create the positive change that we seek."

According to a recording of 911 tapes released this week, officers responded to a police radio report of a "disturbance" by a "group of males" at the Starbucks.

A Philadelphia police incident report obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News says the two men cursed at the Starbucks store manager and refused to leave after officers repeatedly asked them to. It also accused the men of insulting the police by saying, "Cops don't know the laws," and "Y'all make 45G a year."

The report categorized the incident as "defiant trespass," although the District Attorney's Office ultimately declined to charge either man with a crime.

The second man has not been identified.

"He's an outstanding young man who was meeting someone about a real estate deal, and look what happened," Gossett said of Nelson.

Gossett's son, Rolando Ransom, 24, said he's known Nelson for 18 years. He said Nelson graduated from John Bartram High School about two blocks away, and has a 2-year-old son.

"It's unfortunate, but I feel joy because he handled the situation in the correct way," said Ransom, also a member of Omega. "It's going to bring light to something in America that needs to be exposed. I think my friend truly made a difference, and I think that's what he loves to do and what he is passionate about."

Nelson's LinkedIn page identifies him as a warehouse worker and motivational speaker who majored in finance at Bloomsburg in Columbia County.

A profile page under his name at Connected Investors describes Nelson as a Philadelphia-based investor interested primarily in multifamily homes. Nelson's name doesn't appear in city property records or on any business licenses.

A Bloomsburg spokesman said Wednesday that Nelson did not graduate from the university and that the last semester he finished was fall 2016.

Ransom, a student at Cheyney University, said the Omega fraternity has scheduled another protest in front of the Starbucks for Sunday.

"My brothers will be down there Sunday to bring light to this unfortunate situation," Ransom said. "Sometimes things happen in mysterious ways because I think this time the cops, Starbucks, whoever was involved, kind of messed with the wrong person. Rashon is a totally innocent guy. He has a kid. I watch him get up every day, work, and try to make a way for himself. He's a good guy."

Meanwhile, another top executive at Starbucks is expressing regret, and another march is scheduled for Thursday in Center City.

Howard Schultz, the Seattle-based coffee chain's executive chairman, appearing Wednesday on CBS This Morning, discussed what the company plans to do in response to last week's incident. The company announced Tuesday that it would shut down for an afternoon next month while its employees undergo racial-bias training.

Schultz told the show's co-host Gayle King that he was "embarrassed, ashamed" and said that the training marks just "the beginning" of what Starbucks plans to do. Bloomberg estimated that the May 29 shutdown would cost the company $16.7 million, but Schultz said he wasn't thinking about the loss.

"I've always viewed this and things like this as not an expense but an investment in our people, in our company, and we're better than this and I think people expect us to be at a higher level than many other companies, and I understand that," Schultz said.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, who issued his own apology on TV earlier this week and called the situation "reprehensible" in an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News, has been in damage-control mode, meeting with government and community leaders in Philadelphia, including Mayor Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner. He also apologized to the two men.

Members of POWER, an interfaith group, met with Johnson and Schultz after helping to lead Monday's protest at the 1801 Spruce St. location where the incident occurred. POWER has sent a list of demands to the company and to Krasner. The demands to Starbucks include paying employees $15 an hour and playing a larger role in its communities, while the group wants all Philadelphia police officers to be required to wear body cameras in the next year.

The group also wants to meet with Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who stressed over the weekend that the officers involved in the arrest had acted appropriately.

POWER is organizing a march to be held Thursday, starting at 5 p.m. at Police Headquarters at 750 Race St. and ending with a rally at 5:45 at City Hall.

"Both Starbucks and Philadelphia's Mayor have issued remorseful apologies; however, the Police Commissioner is defending the officers who made the controversial arrests," the group said in a statement. "Commissioner Ross has said the officers did 'absolutely nothing wrong.' POWER and community leaders are gathering to demonstrate that racial discrimination is intolerable and that Philadelphia Police must end racial bias and complicity with White supremacy."

Philadelphia police did not comment on that statement. A police spokesman said Wednesday that the department was still investigating why the men were held in custody for upward of eight hours before they were released.

Staff writers Patricia Madej, Michele Tranquilli, and Stephanie Farr contributed to this article.