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2 black men arrested at Starbucks get an apology from police

Errin Haines Whack, AP National Writer | 4/19/2018, 6:21 p.m.
Rashon Nelson initially brushed it off when the Starbucks manager told him he couldn't use the restroom because he wasn't ...
In this Wednesday, April 18, 2018 photo, Rashon Nelson, left, listens as and Donte Robinson, right, addresses a reporter's question during an interview with The Associated Press in Philadelphia. Their arrests at a local Starbucks quickly became a viral video and galvanized people around the country who saw the incident as modern-day racism. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

PHILADELPHIA — Rashon Nelson initially brushed it off when the Starbucks manager told him he couldn't use the restroom because he wasn't a paying customer.

He thought nothing of it when he and his childhood friend and business partner, Donte Robinson, were approached at their table and were asked if they needed help. The 23-year-old entrepreneurs declined, explaining they were just waiting for a business meeting.

A few minutes later, they hardly noticed when the police came into the coffee shop — until officers started walking in their direction.

"That's when we knew she called the police on us," Nelson told The Associated Press in the first interview by the two black men since video of their April 12 trespassing arrests touched off a furor around the U.S. over racial profiling or what has been dubbed "retail racism" or "shopping while black."

Nelson and Robinson were led away in handcuffs from the shop in the city's well-to-do Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in an incident recorded on a white customer's cellphone.

In the week since, the men have met with Starbucks' apologetic CEO and have started pushing for lasting change at the coffee shop chain, including new policies on discrimination and ejecting customers.

"We do want to make sure it doesn't happen to anybody again," Robinson said. "What if it wasn't us sitting there? What if it was the kid that didn't know somebody that knew somebody? Do they make it to jail? Do they die? What happens?"

On Thursday, they also got an apology from Philadelphia police Commissioner Richard Ross, a black man who at first staunchly defended his officers' handling of the encounter.

"I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law, and not that they didn't do anything wrong," Ross said. "Words are very important."

At a news conference, a somber Ross said he "failed miserably" in addressing the arrests. He said that the issue of race is not lost on him and that he shouldn't be the person making things worse.

"Shame on me if, in any way, I've done that," he said.

He also said the police department did not have a policy for dealing for such situations but does now and it will be released soon.

Nelson and Robinson said they went to the Starbucks to meet Andrew Yaffe, a white local businessman, over a potential real estate opportunity. Three officers showed up not long after. Nelson said they weren't questioned but were told to leave immediately.

Yaffe showed up as the men were being handcuffed and could be seen in the video demanding an explanation for the officers' actions. Nelson and Robinson did not resist arrest.

"When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it?" Nelson said. "You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class. That was the choice we had."

It was not their first encounter with police. But neither had been arrested before, setting them apart from many of those they grew up with in their gritty southwest Philadelphia neighborhood.