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Protests mount, Starbucks CEO apologizes, for arrests of 2 black men at Philadelphia store

The manager is not working at the store, pending an investigation by Starbucks

Christopher Potts (right) protests outside the Starbucks on 18th & Spruce Streets on Monday.
Christopher Potts (right) protests outside the Starbucks on 18th & Spruce Streets on Monday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

As a protest outside a Starbucks at the typically tranquil corner of 18th and Spruce Streets wound to a close Monday morning, a woman poured a cup of (non-Starbucks) coffee out onto the sidewalk.

The implication was that the protesters were there not only to decry the arrest of two men who — to many who saw a viral video of the incident at the cafe Thursday  — appeared to be guilty of nothing but waiting for a friend while black.

The protesters were also intent on seizing the moment to spark a larger discussion about how black people are treated, surveilled, and policed across Philadelphia.

Fallout from the two men's arrest so far has included three days of protests, castigating statements from Philadelphia elected officials, a sit-in by community and faith leaders to deliver a list of demands, a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that's trending on social media, and a damage-control tour by Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson, who flew into town to apologize personally to the two men. He was accompanied by Roz Brewer, the company's president and chief operating officer, a spokeswoman said.

 >>READ MORE: For black cafe patrons, Starbucks arrests raise concerns and interest in black businesses

 >>READ MORE: Philly looking into other incidents at same Starbucks where two black men were arrested

The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church, said the reason for the quick and fierce backlash is this: "It demonstrates that if you're black, there's nobody that's safe. You can't do anything less threatening as a black person than hanging out at Starbucks."

"It says to us that it doesn't matter what you attain in this country, black people and black lives are treated with the same amount of disrespect."

The incident that started it all took place Thursday afternoon, when two African American men sitting in a Starbucks were asked to leave. The men had not purchased anything but were waiting for a third man, a developer named Andrew Yaffe, to discuss a real estate deal. But by the time Yaffe arrived, the manager had called 911 and the two men were surrounded by seven police officers, who led them away in handcuffs.

The District Attorney's Office declined to charge the men, who have not been identified, and who were released eight hours later. Meanwhile, a video of the incident, posted by Philadelphia novelist Melissa DePino, has been viewed more than 10 million times.

The Philadelphia Police Department has defended its handling of the incident, while the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations has contacted Starbucks to discuss what occurred.

The manager who called 911 has left the store pending an investigation by Starbucks, a spokeswoman for the company said.

>>READ MORE: Latest updates on fallout from the Starbucks arrests

>>READ MORE: Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson promises unconscious-bias training for managers

In an interview, Johnson said part of the problem was a local policy that was ambiguous about when to call police.

"There are situations where it's appropriate to call the police, situations where there are threats or disruptions in our store," he said. "This situation had none of that, and these two gentlemen did not deserve what unfolded."

Starbucks' response, he said, will include a review of policies and training practices. Already planned is unconscious-bias training for all Starbucks managers.

The crowd of Monday morning protesters, racially diverse and about 40 strong, foreclosed any hope of obtaining a morning caffeine boost, to the irritation of at least one customer who was escorted out while shouting that staff had done nothing wrong.

But, chanting "anti-blackness anywhere is anti-blackness everywhere" and singing an impromptu protest song adapted from the Black Panther soundtrack, the demonstrators insisted this is no tempest in a coffee cup.

"These are two black people who just wanted to be in the world," said Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, of the Black and Brown Workers Collective. "They weren't protesting, they weren't angry. They were waiting on a white friend to discuss business."

Megan Malachi, an organizer of Monday's demonstration, said the Philly for REAL Justice group had received reports of similar incidents in the past.

In a Facebook post, Muhammad wrote of having been booted from Starbucks during a recent visit. The activist, per the post, intended to buy something, but was taking some time "to regroup."

Philadelphia's elected officials joined in the outcry in critical written statements. Mayor Kenney was "heartbroken." Councilman Kenyatta Johnson was "alarmed and extremely discouraged." Sen. Bob Casey was "very concerned."

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke tagged his statement #StarbucksWhileBlack: "The overwhelming support for these men from people across the country indicates that more Americans are aware of persistent structural racism."

In a Facebook Live video posted Saturday, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross defended the arrests and said officers three times asked the two men politely to leave.

"These officers did absolutely nothing wrong," he added. "They followed policy. They did what they were supposed to do. They were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen, and instead they got the opposite back."

After a meeting between Starbucks' Johnson and city leaders Monday afternoon at City Hall, the mayor, who had criticized the incident as an example of racial discrimination, acknowledged there was "a very complicated set of circumstances." He said no officers should be disciplined.

Councilman Johnson was not impressed with Starbucks' response.

"At the end of the day, I walked away thinking it was typical corporate talk, and I'm ready to see action," he said.

"It's going to be lip service for me," Johnson added, "until I actually see a plan in action that deals specifically with diversity, inclusion, and training."

In a statement, the Police Advisory Commission concurred: "It seems that the men who were ultimately arrested in this incident may not have been legally justified to be in Starbucks once they refused to make a purchase and did not leave when asked by both the store management and police."

That did little to quell the outcry from groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which urged training for the Starbucks staffers, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which demanded that police cease racial profiling.

The ACLU noted that the police service area where the Starbucks is located, part of the Ninth District, has the city's greatest racial disparities in pedestrian stops. In 2017, 67 percent of stops in that area were of African Americans, who account for just 3 percent of the area's population.

"Which side are you on?" the Rev. Nicolas O'Rourke, of the Living Water United Church of Christ, bellowed in song, as the group — occupying nearly every square inch of the Starbucks — chimed in: "I'm on the justice side."

A few minutes later, the group marched to the Starbucks at 15th and Latimer Streets, where they again sang and chanted before making  their way to the Starbucks at the Bellevue Hotel on Broad Street. This time, they stayed outside.

Staff writers Holly Otterbein, Caitlin McCabe, Julie Shaw, and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.