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Black men arrested at Philadelphia Starbucks say they feared for their lives

Philadelphia's police chief apologized for his handling of the fallout, saying he exacerbated the situation.
Image: Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson
Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson in their attorney's office in Philadelphia on Thursday.Jacqueline Larma / AP

The two men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks spoke out for the first time Thursday, saying they feared for their lives, just hours before the city's police chief apologized for his handling of the fallout.

"I have to do better," Police Commissioner Richard Ross said during a news conference, adding, "Shame on me" for exacerbating the situation.

The apology came a week after Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, 23-year-old black men, were arrested while sitting at Starbucks in Philadelphia's tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood waiting for a business meeting. Video of their arrests last Thursday went viral, prompting outrage and accusations of racism against both the coffee chain and the police.

Ross, who is also black, had initially staunchly defended police for their conduct, saying they "did absolutely nothing wrong."

But on Thursday, Ross said he fanned the flames with that remark.

"I should have used language that they 'followed the law,'" he said. "'Didn't do anything wrong' probably wasn't the best language to use."

Nelson told The Associated Press that he and Robinson initially brushed it off when a Starbucks manager told him that he couldn't use the restroom because he wasn't a paying customer. He said that he thought nothing of it when he and Robinson, his business partner, were approached at their table and asked if they needed help.

The men declined, explaining that they were just waiting for a business partner to arrive.

A few minutes later, he said, they hardly noticed when police walked 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 AP in the men's first interview, referring to the manager.

Nelson and Robinson were taken in handcuffs from the coffee shop, where Robinson has been a customer since he was 15. The video of their arrest, recorded on a white customer's cellphone, outraged many nationwide.

Robinson said that as the men were suddenly led out, he thought about his loved ones and how the afternoon had taken such a turn. As he was taken to jail, Nelson wondered if he'd make it home alive.

"Anytime I'm encountered by cops, I can honestly say it's a thought that runs through my mind," Nelson said. "You never know what's going to happen."

Notwithstanding his apology, Ross maintained that the officers, who had come to the Starbucks after employees called 911 to say the men were trespassing, had responded appropriately given the information they had received.

Ross said he wasn't aware that Starbucks allows people to sit in its shops without buying anything. Officers were also unaware of the policy, he said.

"They were put, in some ways, in an untenable position. And I know some people don't or refuse to understand that, but it's just a reality," Ross said. "It was in large part me that made the situation worse."

He also said claims that he didn't understand the issue of racism were outlandish.

"I'm 54 years old. I've been African-American my entire life, and yes, I've been in situations where I've seen racism and prejudice in a variety of ways," he said. "Based on what these police officers responded to, I don't think that was an issue here. As for that manager, that's a whole other ballgame."

In the week since their arrests, Nelson and Robinson have met with Starbucks' CEO and have started pushing for lasting changes to ensure that what happened to them doesn't happen to anyone else.

"This is something that's been going on for years, and everyone's blind to it, but they know what's going on, if you get what I mean," Nelson told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday. "It's not just a black people thing. This is a people thing, and that's exactly what we to see out of this, and that's true change."

The meeting that they were waiting for at the coffee shop, the men explained, was about a highly anticipated real estate deal.

"We’ve been working on this for months," Nelson told "Good Morning America." "We're days away from changing our whole entire situation, our lives, and you about to sit here telling me I can’t do that? You’re not doing that."

Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, who is white, said that what happened at the Starbucks "appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018."

Nelson and Robinson were meeting Andrew Yaffe, a white local businessman, at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks, where they'd met several times before on a potential real estate opportunity.

They arrived a few minutes early. Three police 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. He can be seen in the video demanding an explanation. Nelson and Robinson did not resist arrest.

It was hardly their first encounter with police, a rite of passage that becomes a regular occurrence for many black men their age. But neither had been arrested before, setting them apart from many of their peers in the gritty southwest Philadelphia neighborhood where they grew up.

Robinson briefly wondered what he might've done to bring the moment on himself.

"I feel like I fell short," he said. "I'm trying to think of something I did wrong, to put not just me but my brother, my lifelong friend ... in this situation."

Attorney Stewart Cohen, who is representing Nelson and Robinson, claims that the men were illegally profiled.

Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. has said the location where the arrests occurred has a policy that restrooms are for paying customers only.

Nelson and Robinson spent hours in a jail cell with no outside contact. They were released after midnight, when the district attorney declined to prosecute them. They had no idea that the video of their arrests was making the rounds on the internet.

The day after their arrests, they thought about what to do next.

"You go from being someone who's just trying to be an entrepreneur, having your own dreams and aspirations, and then this happens," Nelson said. "How do you handle it? Do you stand up? Do you fight? Do you sit down and just watch everyone else fight for you? Do you let it slide, like we let everything else slide with injustice?"

Robinson, still focused on the previous day's business deal, called Yaffe to reschedule. Yaffe told him about the video and the traction it had gotten.

Over the weekend, outrage over the video grew, prompting a protest at the Starbucks store and a national boycott. By Monday, the men were set to meet with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson.

Johnson responded quickly to the arrests, calling them "reprehensible," apologizing and ordering stores closed on the afternoon of May 29 for mandatory training to tackle unconscious bias.

Nelson and Robinson said they're looking for more lasting results and are in mediation proceedings with Starbucks to implement changes, including the posting in stores of a customer bill of rights; the adoption of new policies regarding customer ejections, racial profiling and racial discrimination; and independent investigations of complaints of profiling or discrimination from customers and employees.

Robinson said he appreciates the support the men have received, but boycotting Starbucks is not the solution.

"We need a different type of action ... not words," he said. "It's a time to pay attention and understand what's really going on. We do want a seat at the table."