Controversial Starbucks Arrests Put Philadelphia Police in Spotlight

by | April 16, 2018

By Andrew Seidman

Philly cops had a bad weekend.

It had nothing to do with an officer-involved shooting or allegations of excessive force. Turns out even a trip to Starbucks can inflame passions over race and policing in America.

The arrest on Thursday of two African American men who were sitting in a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks waiting for an acquaintance to arrive set off a national outcry on social media. A video of the incident taken by a customer went viral over the weekend. Police said the men, who hadn't ordered anything, were arrested after they were asked to leave but refused to do so.

More controversy began to stir Sunday morning, when police tased and arrested an Eagles player after finding him in his car with a gun. Police didn't provide additional details, but by the end of the day cornerback Daryl Worley, who was signed in the offseason, was released by the team. On a different day, the story may have generated more buzz.

But the bizarre episode at Starbucks resonated. The iconic coffee chain serves millions of people every day, many of whom treat it as a personal office space to make business calls, conduct job interviews, study for exams, and catch up with old friends. Many stay for hours on end, usually after spending just a few bucks.

That image of Starbucks was incongruous with the video of two men being handcuffed and surrounded by at least six police officers. The incident set off protests Sunday outside the store on 18th and Spruce Streets and talk of boycotts on social media. It also prompted an apology from Starbucks' chief executive.

"Philly is superficially progressive. We want to be better but we are unwilling as a community to do the tough work in reconciliation of our past," said Erica Atwood, a former executive director of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission.

"I know I have ... an ability to hide," said Atwood, 43, who is black and a resident of Philadelphia's University City section. "I present young. I look like I have some level of economic status. I get to sit in places hours on end and just use up WiFi. Nobody calls a cop. Nobody asks anything of me."

Atwood and others said the incident was alarming not just because of the arrest. After all, it was a Starbucks employee -- presumably a Philadelphia resident -- who believed the whole thing warranted a call to the police in the first place.

It wasn't lost on activists that the incident took place in a wealthy neighborhood. For some, that raised questions about who gets to shape national conversations about issues like race.

For example, many white people cannot imagine being shot by a police officer -- but they "certainly see themselves in the position of being in Starbucks and waiting upon a friend to make an order," said Paul Hetznecker, a Philadelphia civil rights lawyer.

Being able to empathize with people caught in that situation could spur "more self-reflection within white society" about the consequences of racism, he said, "to say, 'Wait a minute, this is not justice, this is not fair.'"

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said the "overwhelming support for these men from people across the country indicates that more Americans are aware of persistent structural racism."

"That's a development that I hope everybody takes to the voting booth this year," he wrote on Twitter, using the hashtag #StarbucksWhileBlack.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross said in a video posted to Facebook that the officers did "absolutely nothing wrong," though he added that the episode underscored the importance of expanding the department's body camera program.

Seven hundred officers are equipped with body cameras, he said; there are more than 6,300 sworn officers in the Philadelphia Police Department. The viral video taken by the customer didn't capture the full encounter.

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said the officers "acted very professionally."

"I can't control what people think," he said, referring to the firestorm over the incident. The officers "did their job," he added.

(c)2018 Philly.com