Starbucks’ ambivalent apology for calling the Philadelphia police on two black guys

Photo: Raw Story

After police removed two black men from a Starbucks in Philadelphia in handcuffs, the Starbucks CEO has apologized. A lot of you wanted me to analyze this: half thought the apology was excellent, the other half terrible. So let’s take the thing apart and see why it’s so controversial.

First, what happened in Philadelphia?

The two men were waiting in the Starbucks to meet with a third man, but hadn’t bought anything. One used the bathroom. The manager tried to enforce a policy that non-customers can’t hang out there, and asked them to leave. When they wouldn’t, he called the police.

The third man then arrived. So did the Philadelphia police. The officers asked the black men to leave. They refused. Then the police said they’d need to arrest them. At that point, the men agreed to meet somewhere else, but it was too late, the police said, and they took the black men away in handcuffs. The police released them eight hours later, saying that there was no evidence they had committed a crime.

There’s certainly more than one way to perceive this incident. You could say that the men were penalized for sitting around and being black. You could say the manager was trying to enforce a straightforward policy of reserving space and bathrooms for customers only. No one here was aggressive or violent, but obviously racial tensions have made this incident infamous.

Starbucks’ reaction was measured

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson issued a statement almost immediately. His task is difficult because everybody here made a mistake. The two men made a mistake by sitting around and using the bathroom without buying anything, which I think we all know isn’t typically allowed in a Starbucks. But the store manager made a mistake by calling police for two guys who were sitting peacefully in the restaurant. The police made a mistake by arresting them rather than just allowing them to leave. At each step in the incident, things got more inflamed. So what’s a CEO to do?

Let’s take a look at Johnson’s statement. I’ll put weasel words (vague intensifiers and qualifiers) in bold and add my own commentary.

Starbucks ceo: Reprehensible outcome in Philadelphia incident

Dear Starbucks Partners and Customers:

By now, you may be aware of a disheartening situation in one of our Philadelphia-area stores this past Thursday, that led to a reprehensible outcome.

Commentary: These are curious words to choose. “Disheartening” describes Johnson’s perspective, which is that it’s a shame that this happened. “Reprehensible” is a stronger word, implying someone is to blame. But whose fault is it? While this is not a passive voice sentence, writing about a “reprehensible” outcome without identifying who is to blame is a passive construction. So this rings hollow.

I’m writing this evening to convey three things:

First, to once again express our deepest apologies to the two men who were arrested with a goal of doing whatever we can to make things right. Second, to let you know of our plans to investigate the pertinent facts and make any necessary changes to our practices that would help prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again. And third, to reassure you that Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling.

Commentary: Are you surprised that Starbucks is sorry two guys got arrested in its store? That they’re looking into it? That’s they’re against discrimination? Of course not. These are platitudes. This is clearly written statement, but it rings hollow as well. “We’re sorry you got arrested” is a far cry from “People sitting peacefully in our store shouldn’t get arrested, and we shouldn’t have called the police.”

In the coming days, I will be joining our regional vice president, Camille Hymes—who is on the ground in Philadelphia—to speak with partners, customers and community leaders as well as law enforcement. Most importantly, I hope to meet personally with the two men who were arrested to offer a face-to-face apology.

Commentary: This says something is happening. It doesn’t say much about what.

We have immediately begun a thorough investigation of our practices. In addition to our own review, we will work with outside experts and community leaders to understand and adopt best practices. The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values. Creating an environment that is both safe and welcoming for everyone is paramount for every store. Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome—the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.

Commentary: Here, buried deep in the statement, we finally find out what Starbucks agrees that it did wrong. The store employees shouldn’t have called the police. And Starbucks admits that its policies and training are at fault. But even along with these statements of responsibility, the statement uses vague words like “bad outcome” to soften things.

We also will further train our partners to better know when police assistance is warranted. Additionally, we will host a company-wide meeting next week to share our learnings, discuss some immediate next steps and underscore our long-standing commitment to treating one another with respect and dignity. I know our store managers and partners work hard to exceed our customers’ expectations every day—which makes this very poor reflection on our company all the more painful.

Commentary: Something’s got to change, but it’s not clear what. They’ll share what they learn, but who knows what that will be.

Finally, to our partners who proudly wear the green apron and to customers who come to us for a sense of community every day: You can and should expect more from us. We will learn from this and be better.


Kevin Johnson


Commentary: This is, basically, “trust me.”

If you’re not sure what you want to say, your writing reflects that

Kevin Johnson and his team who wrote this statement don’t want to upset black customer and people sympathetic with them, but they don’t want to upset their staff on the front lines, either. This statement tries not to offend anybody. But that’s a prescription for failure. While it takes more responsibility than most statements of this kind, it’s doomed to failure, because the people who wrote it are attempting to drive right down the center line. That’s a way to get hit from both sides, and that is indeed what is happening right now — with a statement like this, both sides of a divided country can blame Starbucks. And sure enough, there are boycott calls on both sides.

There is a higher truth here; it’s that escalation of issues like this ends badly.

So here’s a statement that they could have written.

It was terrible to hear about how two black men got arrested in a Starbucks store in Philadelphia. This should never have happened. I want to personally apologize to the men who were arrested, on behalf of everyone at Starbucks. This is not how we treat people sitting peacefully in our stores.

The problem here was that things escalated out of hand.

While it appears the customers violated our policy by sitting in our restaurant without buying anything, that’s no reason to arrest them.

We’ll be working on a new set of training on how to appropriate enforce our policies. Unless someone is behaving violently or in an unsafe way, we won’t be calling police anymore.

Our aim is to treat all of our patrons respectfully, and to give our employees the tools they need to do the job and maintain a friendly atmosphere at Starbucks.

I take this seriously, and I will be going to Philadelphia to personally apologize to the two men and discuss the situation with the employees there. We live in a racially charged society. None of that ugliness belongs in Starbucks. I’ll do everything possible to maintain that ideal. Please hold me to it.

Respectfully, Kevin Johnson, ceo

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  1. Good analysis. I don’t frequent Starbucks so I don’t know from personal experience, but this statement got my attention:

    “sitting around and using the bathroom without buying anything, which I think we all know isn’t typically allowed in a Starbucks”

    This morning I read several statements on my Facebook feed from Americans saying, basically, “we have all arranged meetings with friends in Starbucks and waited around for them to arrive before ordering anything, in the meanwhile using the bathroom or peering at our phones or laptops. This happens all the time.”

    This makes me think that what is “not typically allowed” may vary from region to region. Or else what is “not typically allowed” is not typically allowed for some, but not others.

  2. “The two men made a mistake by sitting around and using the bathroom without buying anything, which I think we all know isn’t typically allowed in a Starbucks.”
    Here’s the thing: Commenters have posted that they routinely see white freeloaders use the bathroom and not get hassled for it. If what happened in Philly isn’t racial profiling, what is?

  3. Create a policy, harp on it in EVERY staff meeting for months on end.
    Make sure the staff knows what will happen to them if they do not enforce it, demotion or dismissal.
    Then when the employee enforces it, toss him under the bus because what he did looks bad in
    the media. Yup that is Starbucks…. That is why we miss Tully’s here in Seattle.