A Racist Incident at Starbucks

Students view and discuss the viral video of two black men being handcuffed and walked out of a Philadelphia Starbucks by six police officers in April 2018. Students consider the accounts of eyewitnesses, as well as an account by the two men who were arrested, and discuss what "racial profiling" means.


Invite students to look at the following tweet.  What does it refer to?  What do students know about what happened at a Starbucks in Philadelphia on Thursday April 12, 2018?  What have been some of the responses?


Elicit and explain that on Thursday, April 12, 2018, Philadelphia resident Melissa DePino posted a video to Twitter that quickly went viral.  It gained more than 9 million views by Monday morning.  

The video showed two black men being handcuffed and walked out of a Philadelphia Starbucks by six police officers. Customers can be seen and heard telling the police that the men did nothing wrong. They ask the police what the men did to provoke this kind of response. 

It turns out the men were at the Starbucks for a business meeting. The barista called 911 because they were using the coffee shop as a meeting place without making a purchase (as many people do at Starbucks on a daily basis).  The police arrested the men for trespassing. They spent the next nine hours in jail, before being released because of lack of evidence that a crime had been committed.  


Check Agenda and Objectives

Explain that in today’s lesson we’ll be exploring what happened in the Starbucks in Philadelphia.


Watch and Discuss the Video


Ask students to read this tweet by Melissa DePino, and view the video.

Invite students to share their thoughts and feelings on what they just viewed. Ask:

  • How did you feel about what happened in the video?
  • What did you actually see and hear happen in this video?  
  • Who did what and how?
  • How do you think the different people in the situation are feeling?  Why?

The tweet accompanying the video reads: 

"The police were called because these men hadn't ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it's never happened to us when we do the same thing."

Ask students:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the Melissa DePino’s tweet?
  • What did DePino say about the white people at the Starbucks?  Why is she raising this issue? 
  • How are some of the other customers at the Starbucks responding?

In remarks following the incident, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said a situation like this “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”  

  • What about the incident do you think he’s referring to? 

Kenney continues: 

“For many, 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. Like all retail establishments in our city, Starbucks should be a place where everyone is treated the same, no matter the color of their skin.”

Invite students’ thoughts and feelings about what the Mayor shared in response to the incident at the Starbucks.


Comparing Eyewitness Accounts

Distribute these two different accounts about what happened at the Starbucks. (The accounts are included below, and also in this pdf handout.)

Give half of the class Lauren’s Eyewitness Account. Give the other half Michelle Saahene’s Eyewitness Account.  Invite students to read their account.  

Get students to pair up with someone who has read the same eyewitness account.  Ask them to discuss the questions at the end of their account.  Give students time to discuss the questions. 

Next, bring students back to the large group. Ask some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the account you read and discussed?
  • What stood out for you about the account?  How was it the same/different from what we already discussed around the video earlier? 
  • What is “racial profiling?” 

Elicit and explain what racial profiling is.  Consider sharing some or all of the following definitions with your students:

Merriam Webster:  

… “The act of suspecting or targeted a person on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior”  


“Racial profiling is the act of suspecting or targeting a person of a certain race on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior, rather than on individual suspicion.”

The American Civil Liberties Union
"Racial Profiling" refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.  Racial profiling is a longstanding and deeply troubling national problem despite claims that the United States has entered a “post-racial era.” It occurs every day, in cities and towns across the country, when law enforcement and private security target people of color for humiliating and often frightening detentions, interrogations, and searches without evidence of criminal activity and based on perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. Racial profiling is patently illegal … 

Ask students: 

  • How does racial profiling apply to this situation?  
  • How were the two black men criminalized?
  • One of the eyewitnesses, Lauren, describes herself as a "person of privilege." The other, Michelle, says that she is black.  Do you think the identities of the two witnesses affected how they viewed, and/or responded to the incident? In what way?

Write Lauren and Michelle's names on the board and consider creating a T-chart to record how the eyewitnesses responded to the situation:

  • How did Lauren/Michelle respond? 
  • How did Lauren/Michelle feel about the incident? 
  • Can you relate to how the eyewitnesses in the accounts were feeling?  Explain.
  • Have you ever been in a similar situation?  What was that like?
  • Consider going back to the last lines of each of the eyewitness accounts. Invite a volunteer to read out the last paragraph of each of the accounts. Then compare and contrast.
  • Going back to the mayor's words from earlier: What does this tell us about "what racial discrimination looks like in 2018"? 



Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson: What happened?

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were the two men arrested after the manager called 911 on them.  Ask students to read their account of what happened at the Philadelphia Starbucks.  (The account is included below, and also in this pdf handout.)

Ask students to reflect on this account by using some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this third account?
  • How is this account similar to the eyewitness accounts? How is it different?  What is added?
  • Can you relate to the men telling their story?  Explain. 
  • Have you ever been in a similar situation?  What was that like?
  • What do you think Nelson means by “you can either be ignorant or show some type of sophistication and act like you have class”? 
  • What are your thoughts/feelings about that?
  • What does he say about “encounters with cops” and his thoughts about that?  
  • What are your thoughts/feelings about that?



If you had a chance, what is something you would like to say to Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson? 


View handouts as PDF

Handout: Lauren’s Eyewitness Account  
(from ABC News)

An eyewitness said a manager escalated the situation by calling police instead of asking the men to buy something or leave.

Lauren, who asked that her last name not be used, shot video of the two men being arrested at the Starbucks just before 5 p.m. on April 12. She said the incident began after the men asked to use the bathroom and were told that it was only available for paying customers, which Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross later confirmed.

After the men had been "quietly hanging out, chatting and waiting for their friend," she said officers entered the restaurant and asked the two men to leave, saying that they would be trespassing if they did not leave.

"The two young men politely asked why they were being told to leave and were not given a reason other than the manager wanted them to leave," she told ABC in an email.

The men told the officer that they were waiting for a friend to arrive and offered to call that friend to prove that they had legitimate business at the restaurant, she said.

At that point, she said several officers began to move tables and chairs around the two men and take them into custody.

The friend for whom the men were waiting then arrived and attempted to intervene, but police told him the men "were not paying customers and thus were trespassing," Lauren recalled.

"The two men stayed calm and did not raise their voices once. Everyone else in the Starbucks, however, was appalled," she added.

Lauren said another woman had entered the Starbucks minutes before the men were arrested and was given the bathroom code without having to buy anything and that another person in the restaurant at the time of the incident "announced that she had been sitting at Starbucks for the past couple of hours without buying anything."

"These men were discriminated against and unjustly detained. Being a person of privilege, it's hard to believe things like this still happen in 2018," Lauren told ABC. "Sometimes you don't fully believe it until you see it with your own eyes."


In your pair, discuss the following questions:  

  • How is Lauren feeling?
  • Can you relate to her and her comments?  Explain. 
  • Have you ever been in a similar situation?  What was that like?
  • What do you think she means by “being a person of privilege”?
  • What is it that she doesn’t fully believe, until she saw it with her own eyes”?


Handout: Michelle Saahene’s Eyewitness Account 

(from NBC News)

"I’m black and it was just so … I was scared for them," witness Michelle Saahene told NBC10. "I was so angry I was trembling. I was furious. I even approached the manager. ... I asked the barista why she called the cops on them."

Saahene said both men were minding their own business using their phones and sitting quietly. She said she was told that the store manager called police.

"The officers said the manager asked them to leave and that if they did not leave the cafe, they would be trespassing," Saahene said. "The two young men politely asked why they were being asked to leave and were not given a reason other than that they hadn’t bought something."

Another officer came in and told the men again they had to leave immediately, according to Saahene.

"The two guys sat there calmly and said they hadn’t done anything wrong, and that they were there waiting for a friend," Saahene said. "The cops started to move chairs and tables out of the way that had been between them and the two men."

Saahene said more officers were called to the Starbucks and one of the men offered to call the friend they were waiting for to prove their story. The officers then made the men stand up and handcuffed them, according to Saahene.

"They actually put them in handcuffs because they didn’t buy a f--- latte," Saahene said.

Saahene said a friend of the two men then walked in as the officers placed them in handcuffs and asked why they were being arrested, to which the officers replied, "trespassing." 

"[The friend] said, 'But this is a public space. We’re in Starbucks. How is this considered trespassing?' The cops said the two men were not paying customers and thus were trespassing," Saahene said. 

The officers then escorted the handcuffed men out of the Starbucks, according to Saahene. 

Saahene said at no point did the two men get angry or raise their voices.

"Plenty of people hang out in Starbucks without buying something," Saahene said. "There was nothing about their appearance or behavior that posed a threat. The only possible explanation is their race."


In your pair, discuss the following questions: 

  • How is Michelle Saahene feeling?
  • Can you relate to her and her comments?  Explain. 
  • Have you ever been in a similar situation?  What was that like?
  • What do you think Michelle Saahene means by “the only possible explanation is race”? 


Handout: Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson Account

(from ABC News

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.

… 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."

Nelson and Robinson spent hours in a jail cell and were released after midnight, when the district attorney declined to prosecute them.

Nelson said he wondered if he'd make it home alive. "Any time 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." ….