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Black men arrested at Starbucks hope scandal sparks change

(Reuters) - A week after their arrests at a Starbucks Corp SBUX.O cafe in Philadelphia sparked protests and calls for boycotts of the coffee chain, the two black men involved broke their silence and said they wanted the incident to change U.S. racial attitudes.

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The men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, sat down with ABC’s “Good Morning America” as scrutiny of the popular chain and U.S. police tactics widen.

The arrests have been a “stepping stone to really stand up and show your greatness and that you are not judged by the color of your skin,” Nelson said.

A video of the incident, filmed by an onlooker, has been viewed almost 11 million times. Their arrests sparked protests and a decision by Starbucks to close more than 8,000 stores on May 29 for employee racial-tolerance training.

The incident put Starbucks, which prides itself on diversity and inclusiveness, at the center of a social media storm after the cafe manager called police on Nelson and Robinson, who had not made a purchase and were waiting to meet a friend.

The manager, who is no longer with the company, called police within two minutes of the pair’s arrival, according to the men’s account of the incident. They were released without charges.

“It didn’t really hit me what was going on, that this was real, until I’m being double-locked with my hands behind my back,” Robinson said.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who came under sharp criticism for the incident and his defense of the officers, apologized to Robinson and Nelson and said he had made the situation worse.

Ross told a news conference he had been unaware that Starbucks’ policy was to allow people to remain in its cafes without making a purchase. Police will draft a policy to deal with similar situations, he said.

The men’s attorney, Stewart Cohen, said they are in mediation with Starbucks.

The arrests in Philadelphia have also prompted comments from relatives of a man in Milwaukee who was shot to death four years ago after employees at a Starbucks twice called police to report a man sleeping in a nearby park. While Starbucks referred to the calls as wellness checks, an officer shot the man, who was black, to death.

Then-Chief Executive Howard Schultz met with the man’s family in 2015 and apologized in a private meeting, said Nate Hamilton, the brother of victim Dontre Hamilton, who spoke to media this week after the Philadelphia arrests.

“I’m happy it didn’t turn out the same way,” Hamilton told Reuters. “Starbucks, they talk a good game,” he said of Schultz’s plans. “Is it going to be put into action?”

Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker