Photo by Mark Makela via Getty Images

“Too little, too latte”

Rebecca Firkser
April 16, 2018

Implicit bias runs deep in the United States, and the recent wrongful arrest of two black men last Thursday, April 12, in a Philadelphia Starbucks has become a very public example of something that happens all too often.

According to several videos of the incident, two men (who chose not to be identified by name) arrived at Starbucks to meet a business associate and sat down in the shop without immediately ordering anything. When one of the men tried to use the bathroom, the store’s manager asked the men to leave. When they didn’t immediately leave, the Starbucks manager called 911. When police arrived, the men calmly said they were waiting for someone, but the officers began moving chairs around, preparing to make an arrest. When the men’s friend, Andrew Yaffe, arrived at the Starbucks, he found the men being handcuffed and surrounded by at least five policemen.

“You can’t discriminate,” Yaffe, who is white, can be heard saying in one video, published by the Washington Post.

Melissa DePino, who published her video on Twitter, happened to be at the Starbucks at the time of the arrests and began filming the event as policemen were handcuffing the the men. The conversation between Yaffe, the policemen, and other customers in the store who observed the event is audible in the video.

“This is ridiculous,” Yaffe can be heard saying in DePino’s video. “What did they get called for, because there are two black guys sitting here meeting me? [sic]” Though the police officer’s response to Yaffe is muffled, Yaffe can be heard repeating “what did they do,” several times, to which another Starbucks customer off-camera is heard saying “they didn’t do anything, I saw the entire thing, they asked to use the bathroom.” Other people in the Starbucks can also be heard saying “they didn’t do anything.”

Lauren Wimmer, the two men’s attorney, told the Washington Post that the men were taken to a police station and held for eight hours. The Post reports that the men were released after the district attorney “found no evidence of a crime.” Wimmer made a point to suggest that the call to the police was racially motivated, as the Starbucks manager was white.

According to CNN, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said in a Facebook Live that his officers did nothing wrong. “As an African-American male, I am very aware of implicit bias,” Ross added.

On the morning of April 14, Starbucks published an apology to the men on Twitter, saying the company was “disappointed this led to an arrest” and that they “take these matters seriously and clearly have more work to do when it comes to how we handle incidents in our stores.” The statement garnered quite a bit of flack, as it did not state implicitly that the arrests were uncalled for.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson published a letter and a video on Starbucks’s website on April 14 and 15 respectively, apologizing personally for the “reprehensible outcome” of the incident. Johnson says the company has begun a “thorough investigation of our practices” and that he hopes to meet with the two men to apologize in person. In the follow-up video to his apology, Johnson states that he will do whatever he can to ensure nothing like this happens again, from altering local policy when it comes to calling law enforcement to “additional management training including training around unconscious bias.”

Though Johnson’s apology is a step in the right direction, to the dismay of many, he also said he had no plans to fire the manager responsible for the indecent. Peaceful protesters took to the Starbucks location over the weekend to demand action be taken against the manager, saying that at this point the company's apology is “too little, too latte.”

“We want her out and once she's fired, then we may have a conversation,” Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania activist Asa Khalif told NBC Philadelphia.

Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia, also said in a statement published on April 14 that he thought the Starbucks apology was not enough, and that he has asked the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to “examine the firm’s policies and procedures, including the extent of, or need for, implicit bias training for its employees”—likely one of the main reasons for Johnson’s follow-up video published on April 15, which mentions retraining.

Incidents like last week’s are extremely common and don’t often get this degree of public attention. Just today, writer and activist Shaun King published a video to Twitter detailing an exchange between Brandon Ward, a black man, and an employee at a Los Angeles Starbucks. The video shows that Ward was denied the bathroom code by the Starbucks employee because he hadn’t purchased anything, only to find a white man named Weston coming out of the bathroom who had not purchased anything yet either. 

It’s clear that Starbucks has a long way to go when it comes to dealing with racism within their stores. In the meantime, one of the best ways the public can partake in putting an end to incidents like last week’s is to support black-owned coffee and tea shops instead of going to Starbucks. Shoppe Black, a publication dedicated to empowering black communities, has published a comprehensive list of such businesses throughout the US.

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