When Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two young African American entrepreneurs, entered a Starbucks coffee shop on April 12, 2018, for a business meeting in downtown Philadelphia, neither expected to be caught in the boundary between urban public and private space. The two men arrived at the café and awaited another associate to discuss a potential business opportunity. Shortly after entering, Nelson asked the manager to use the restroom and was told that the facility was for paying customers exclusively. Nelson and Robinson thought little of the interaction; similar policies around bathroom use are common. “I just left it at that,” Nelson later told a reporter. Moments later, the manager, while never asking the men to leave directly, phoned the Philadelphia police requesting assistance with “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Two officers arrived soon after and demanded Nelson and Robinson vacate the premises. Police placed handcuffs on the two men and escorted them out, charging them with trespassing and creating a disturbance, despite no witness testimony of misbehavior. Interviewed later, Robinson stated he understood the company guidance restricting non-paying patrons, but that he disagreed with how the manager applied the policy. “I understand that rules are rules,” he said, “but what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong.”
Images of the incident, captured by other café patrons, went viral across the Internet and commenters from across the country shared outrage at similar experiences. The mayor of Philadelphia condemned the incident lamenting that the expulsion of Nelson and Robinson “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”
Spaces like Starbucks are an important part of the social and cultural fabric of modern cities. They sit as a middle ground between public and private space; a private business, yet used by the public for work, business, and social life sometimes with or without a purchase. As the company’s chief executive explained, “Our concept has always been that Starbucks is in the community. It’s a gathering place…a warm and welcoming environment for all customers.” Philadelphia’s mayor reiterated the place of Starbucks in city life: “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.” This overlap, however, has limits, as Robinson and Nelson discovered when the police intervened on behalf of the business.
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.