In a Facebook live video Saturday afternoon, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross defended the cops who arrested two black men at a Starbucks. The incident took place on Thursday but went viral after video showed the arrests this weekend. Their “crime” — waiting for a friend to meet them there — was originally described as loitering, but apparently now they were “trespassing” for wanting to use the restroom before they’d made a purchase.

According to Ross’ explanation, the two men, who have only been identified thus far as area realtors, had not made a purchase but asked to use the coffee shop’s bathroom. Starbucks’ policy does not allow non-paying customers to use the restroom, so they were denied access.

“So they then asked these two males to leave,” Ross says. But why? What were they doing that necessitated that they leave? Ross never explains. He just continues, “These two males refused to leave, and the police were called.”

This attempt to spin the situation is unconvincing. It is perfectly reasonable for people to sit in a restaurant waiting for a friend and not order until the friend arrives. In this case, the friend arrived just as the men were being escorted out in handcuffs.

If the men intended to make a purchase but were just waiting for their friend to order, then — at the least — it was rather inconsiderate for the Starbucks employees to make them wait to use the bathroom until a purchase had been made. But even if that was an appropriate implementation of the store’s policy, it still doesn’t explain why the men were asked to leave, nor why the police were then called on them.

Moreover, coffee shops are often places for people to meet up for a conversation without ordering anything. It’s one thing to not let them use the bathroom, but another to make them leave. (Full disclosure: This white reporter has had plenty of meetings in various coffee shops, including Starbucks, without having ordered anything, and has never been asked to leave — let alone arrested for trespassing.)

Ross’ defense of his officers rests entirely on the legitimacy of this premise, but as he continues his explanation in the video, it becomes even less believable. “In fact, in an effort to quell the situation, officers called for a supervisor, so that it would not get out of hand — something that was a good decision,” Ross contends. But he never says what the situation is, except that the men repeatedly refused to leave, a perfectly reasonable response when there was no legitimate reason that they should. As seen in the video, a total of six officers were involved in making the arrests.

“Because these individuals refused to leave — because Starbucks actually called — the police did not just happen upon this event. They did not just walk into Starbucks to get coffee. They were called there for a service, and that service had to do with quelling a disturbance — a disturbance that had to do with trespassing,” Ross said. Only after taking the men to the nearby police station did Starbucks say it was no longer interested in prosecuting and they were released from custody.

“It is important for me to say that, in short: These officers did absolutely nothing wrong. 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,” Ross insisted. He explained that a business can kick out a customer at any time for trespassing and the police were right to blindly follow through on Starbucks’ request. Discrimination by businesses on the basis of race is, of course, illegal.

@Starbucks The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.

— Melissa DePino (@missydepino) April 12, 2018

According to a new interview at The Root with Melissa DePino, a regular customer at that Starbucks whose recording of the arrests went viral, the employee who demanded the men leave was white. She also confirmed that many others in the store had been sitting there for hours without purchasing anything but were not confronted by any employees. Many of the other customers followed the police out of the store protesting on the men’s behalf because nobody could understand what they had done wrong.

Prior to Ross publishing his video, the Philadelphia Police Department had tweeted that it was conducting an internal investigation into the incident, “including the actions of the responding officers.” It’s unclear if Ross’ video speaks to the full results of that investigation.

Despite Ross’ defense of his officers’ actions, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (D) has called on the city’s Commission on Human Relations to investigate the incident as well as Starbucks’ policies.

“I am heartbroken to see Philadelphia in the headlines for an incident that — at least based on what we know at this point — appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018,” Kenney said in a statement Saturday. “For many, Starbucks is not just a place to buy a cup of coffee, but a place to meet up with friends or family members, or to get some work done. Like all retail establishments in our city, Starbucks should be a place where everyone is treated the same, no matter the color of their skin.”

Starbucks has apologized for how the customers were treated, expressing disappointment that the incident led to an arrest.

DePino told The Root, “So many of my white friends were saying to me ‘there has to be more to the story than that’.” But there wasn’t. These two men were arrested for not leaving a Starbucks because they had the gall to wait there for a friend while black. “It’s so frustrating.”


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