Starbucks battles to make amends after race row

Chain faces scepticism in US city after arrest of two black men scars community

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon

Damont Lewis, a tall African-American contractor who wears his hair in dreadlocks, said he had never felt particularly comfortable at the Starbucks near his home in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of central Philadelphia.
 On Tuesday, the coffee chain tried to change his mind, closing more than 8,000 US stores for racial sensitivity training of staff as it dealt with the outcry that followed the arrest of two black men at the Rittenhouse Starbucks as they waited for a friend. It did not work.
 “I see it as a business move,”Mr Lewis said as he listened to music in the square, surrounded by some of the most high-priced real estate in the City of Brotherly Love. “I don't see it as the fix to a problem. It's a temporary solution.”
 Less than two months before, employees at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks had denied Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson permission to use the bathroom and then called police.

'For Starbucks to lose that amount of money shows how much they don't want to lose their customers'

 Officers arrived around the same time as the friend they were meeting. The episode was videoed by another customer and quickly circulated on social media, sparking outrage. The men were not charged with any crime.
 The coffee chain moved quickly to quell the protests, promising to close its stores for an afternoon of anti-bias training. It said its bathrooms would be open to anyone that wanted to use them. The manager who called the police was fired.
 Although he appreciated the Starbucks gesture —“at least they are willing to give it attention”— Mr Lewis doubted an afternoon of Starbucks staff training would make much difference to him.
 “I've never patronised them,” he said of the Starbucks at Rittenhouse Square. “I get vibes: I get personally looked at funny a lot, so I just mind my own business.”
 Starbucks settled with Mr Robinson and Mr Nelson for an undisclosed sum after mediation before a retired federal judge. The agreement included an offer to Mr Robinson and Mr Nelson to complete their undergraduate degrees and to share their recommendations with Eric Holder, the former US attorney general under President Barack Obama, who is advising the company on the matter.
 Kevin Johnson, Starbucks chief executive, flew to Philadelphia to meet police and community leaders in the wake of the arrests, and to apologise in person to the two men. The men also settled with the City of Philadelphia for a symbolic $1 each, and a promise from the government to establish a $200,000 fund for young entrepreneurs.
 On Tuesday afternoon, the Starbucks on 18th and Spruce Streets was closed, with its window blinds drawn and a notice on the door stating that it would reopen yesterday after its team had worked on “ideas about how to make Starbucks even more welcoming”.
 Ed Perez, who was smoking a cigar with his son in Rittenhouse Square, said he was not always treated well at the Starbucks in south Philadelphia where his daughter had worked as assistant manager. “It can be unnerving at times,” said Mr Perez, an accountant at Mitchell & Ness, a Philadelphia-based sports clothing company. “Is it because I'm a man of colour? You don't know. It's the climate of the whole country right now. There's a separation going on.”
 His son Dominic said that he thought Starbucks acted well in its response. “For them to lose that amount of money shows how much they don't want to lose their customers,” said the younger Mr Perez. “The fact they're doing it nationwide means they know there's a problem. And this is showing us the kind of power we have.”
 Marc LamontHill, amedia professor at the city's Temple University and the owner ofUncle Bobbie's Coffee&Books in Philadelphia, one of the few blackownedcoffee shops inthe city, saidcompanies such as Starbucks “don't have feelings, theyhave interests”.
 “There's a type of benefit and financial rewardtothe typeof crisismanagement theydid,”he said.
 MrHill said that Philadelphia—a city of nearly 1.6m people, 44 per cent of them African-American — is another matter. Its racialhistoryis complicated. One of the first riots in the civil rights era took place in the city in 1964 as tensions reached a head over police brutality.
 More recently, the jailing of the rapperMeekMill inPhiladelphia for violating his probation has sparked calls for criminal justice reform.
 The area around the Starbuckswhere the two African-American men were arrested can be particularly unfriendly to black people,MrHill said. “InRittenhouse, there are restaurants I don't feel comfortable in, there are stores I don't feel comfortable in.
 “Whatwe sawin Starbucks is a ritual that is as consistent and longstanding as America: the erasure, the criminalisation of brown people in public spaces. Thereareplaceswe justdon't go into.”

 Statement of intent: a man tapes a sign to the door of a Starbucks in Philadelphia highlighting that the outlet will be closed temporarily for training purposes
Matt Slocum/AP



Add new comment