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Starbucks CEO Apologizes for “Reprehensible” Incident in Philadelphia

Ellen McGirt

CEO Kevin Johnson is unexpectedly spending his Monday in Philadelphia today, in an attempt to unpack a brutal reality of American life: It's perilous to be black in public.

A video of two black men being arrested by the Philadelphia police at a Starbucks went viral over the weekend, prompting outrage, protests and a detailed apology from the CEO.

The men, who had been sitting quietly in the store when they were arrested, were waiting for their friend to arrive before they ordered. It’s a common enough practice for a chain that has sought for years to be the best third place in our lives; a welcoming spot, neither home nor work, where people might spend hours reading, chatting or typing out a novel while simply being near other humans.

But some humans are more frightening than others. A store manager had called the police. They opted not to de-escalate.

The incident was reprehensible, said Johnson. In his apology, he explained the company’s “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.”

The video of the arrest, shot by fellow customer Melissa DePino, captured the resigned humiliation of the men and the laudable protestations of their white friend.

"People ignore this kind of stuff. They don't believe that it happens. People are saying that there must be more to this story. There is not," DePino told Philadelphia magazine. "This would never happen to someone who looks like me. People don't believe black people when they say this stuff happens. It does. They want to know the extenuating circumstances. There are none."

Fourteen-year-old Brennan Walker knows this all too well.

Last Thursday, the Rochester Hills, Mich. teen missed his bus and began to walk to school. After he got lost in a tony subdivision, he rang a doorbell of a home looking for directions. A woman answered the door and panicked, believing Walker was an intruder. "Why did 'these people' choose my house?" their digital security system recorded her saying. Her husband grabbed a shotgun and fired off a shot as Walker ran. He was hiding and crying when the police found him.

When white people see black faces, they often see danger. The flip side: When black people need help, they often become invisible.

Consider the tragic case of fifteen-year-old Devonte Hart and his five adopted siblings, all black. On March 26, Hart family’s SUV plunged off a cliff along the California coast, presumably killing all on board. The car was driven by one of his mothers and the investigators now believe it was intentional.

Hart became a symbol of racial reconciliation when a photo of him crying and hugging a white police officer during a Ferguson-related police brutality protest in Portland, Ore. went viral. "Free hugs," his sign said.

But he needed help, not clicks. Adoptive mothers Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who were white, had first been reported to Oregon child welfare authorities five years ago and had been visited again just days before the crash. The home-schooled children often appeared bruised, and regularly asked neighbors to intervene; one twelve-year-old child looked half her age. In the month before he died, Devonte had begged neighbors for food.

We saw Devonte's black face when we thought it reflected the myth of racial progress, not his pain.

But it’s the start of a new week and we all have work to do.

The woman who reported the Hart family to the authorities five years ago is now pushing for the creation of a national child abuse registry. “How is it in this great country of ours, two mothers with a history of reported child abuse in three states, disclosed by at least six adults, over a ten-year span still have custody of six children?" asks Alexandra Argyropoulos.

Today, Brennan Walker is alive and in school, abetted by the miracle that the police believed his account and the man who shot at him, retired firefighter Jeffery Zeigler, left the safety on his weapon. But Zeigler, 53, is in for a rough patch: He was arraigned on Friday on "assault with intent to murder and felony firearm” charges and is due in court on April 24.

And the coffee chieftain is hard at work -- the two men who were arrested have agreed to meet with him. But the store has been filled with protestors since this morning, chanting “Starbucks Coffee is anti-black,” among other slogans. Undoing hundreds of years of raced-based fear is going to take awhile.

But you've got your own Monday to deal with, and you may be (or be working with) a person who is trying to process all this news while leaning in, stressing out, and getting their own stuff done.

My advice? Ask people how they're doing and listen. Share what's on your mind. And skip any praise of Taylor Swift's latest cover song. I get it, it's not like she took a pan flute and banged out a down-home version of Fight the Power, but fear of a black planet is running high today. Stay close to Beyonce. She's the Queen for a reason.

 

Ellen McGirt writes Fortune's raceAhead, a daily newsletter about race and culture.

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