CHICAGO — A Woodlawn coffee shop is facing criticism from customers and residents after black children were asked to leave the shop Friday and police were called on one of their moms, who confronted the owner.
Part of the incident was recorded by Kofi Ademola, an activist who organizes against police brutality and racial injustice, when he happened upon the scene at Robust Coffee, 6300 S. Woodlawn Ave.
The video shows Victoria, a mom of one of the children who was told to leave Robust, standing outside the shop talking about her son being kicked out and police being called when she tried to talk to Robust’s staff about what happened. The video has been seen thousands of times, with some people saying they’ll now refuse to buy from Robust because they think the incident was racist.
But the restaurant’s owner, Jake Sapstein, said the kids were kicked out because some had been stealing and his employees felt unsafe, not because the kids are black.
“They’re just looking to sensationalize something,” Sapstein said. “The students that came in that were stealing were African American; however, the staff that was here [and called police] was also entirely African American. It doesn’t really apply in any way.”
Victoria and Ademola are concerned about the way Robust’s staff acted, with Ademola saying Victoria was put in danger when an employee called the police while she and Sapstein talked about why the kids had been kicked out.
“Escalation can happen very quickly,” Ademola said. “To me, her life and her son’s life were put in danger the moment the police were called.”
The incident began Friday afternoon. Sapstein said Robust regularly serves young people who attend nearby middle and high schools, but the cafe has a policy that “one person can ruin it for the group.” When his employees saw young students stealing, they felt uncomfortable and told all of the young people in the cafe to leave.
The night before, Victoria, who asked that her full name not be used out of concerns for her safety, had given her 13-year-old son money so he could buy a food and drink at the cafe after school because she knew she’d be 15 minutes late to pick him up.
Victoria’s son had nowhere to go because they don’t live nearby, and she didn’t want him waiting for her outside because she didn’t want anyone to pick on him.
But after buying a drink and food and sitting down to read, Victoria’s son was one of the kids who was told to leave the cafe.
Concerned her son had been kicked out even though he was a paying customer, Victoria got to the cafe and went inside to ask what happened.
Inside, the owner told Victoria, “I’m not a babysitter,” she said. He said kids had stolen from him so they’d been kicked out; when she asked if he’d tried to identify who those kids were so just they could be removed, he said no, according to Victoria.
Victoria said she pointed out the man was white and was kicking out black kids, which was concerning to her. The two talked for several minutes, with Victoria saying she offered to come in several hours a week to help watch the cafe while kids were there. The man said he didn’t want her to do that, according to Victoria.
Victoria also questioned why the business had kicked out the young people after they’d paid and expected to be able to drink or eat at the cafe.
“‘You don’t think there’s something wrong with taking their money and putting them out?'” Victoria said she told Sapstein.
The two continued talking, and at one point Victoria said she turned and “suddenly there were police.”
Sapstein, the cafe’s owner, said one of his two employees at the time had called the police because they thought Victoria was “out of hand” and “aggressive.”
Officers were called to the cafe at 4:35 p.m. Friday when someone reported a verbal altercation, a Chicago Police spokesman said. Officers went to the cafe, “restored peace” and left, the spokesman said.
But Victoria said seeing University of Chicago and Chicago Police officers made her feel unsafe. She worried her son, sitting in her car outside, might see her get handcuffed and arrested for trying to speak to the Robust staff.
One of the officers touched Victoria, she said, and she was so uncomfortable she put her hands across her chest so no one would accuse her of touching the police. She continued to try to talk to the officers and Sapstein about the kids getting kicked out and her concerns about that, she said.
“I was so terrified, but I felt like it needed to be said [to Robust’s owner]: ‘What are you doing and why are you doing it?'” Victoria said. “These kids are not black or white. They’re freaking kids. … If you remove color, will they be kicked out? … You gotta treat them like they’re kids.”
More officers came until Victoria said she was in the middle of five or six of them. One pulled Sapstein aside to talk to him while the rest stayed with Victoria, but afterward Sapstein returned and Victoria said he was “combative,” telling her she’d made the incident about race.
“‘You made this about race when you put all those black kids out,'” Victoria said she replied to Sapstein. “‘You’re setting these kids up to be treated a certain way, to expect to be treated a certain way … .'”
Ademola, who lives nearby, was driving by Robust Coffee when he saw the police cars outside. He got out of his car to “cop watch,” he said, and saw Victoria trying to explain to officers what had happened and how she was standing up for her son’s rights.
Afterward, Ademola pulled Victoria aside and recorded the video of her talking about what happened. The video generated a slew of reactions, with some saying they’d no longer go to Robust.
“It’s very disheartening to learn that [Robust is] treating these young people like criminals and still trying to take their money but being very disrespectful to them, which I believe has a very racialized under- and overtone to it,” Ademola said. “I think it could have been handled much differently.”
Victoria eventually went home with her son, who thinks what happened to him was wrong but who was uncomfortable speaking up about it, she said. Victoria said she felt the need to say something because “the more you tolerate a bully, the more they bully you.”
Ademola said he’s thought about leading a boycott of the cafe, but he’s listening to what Victoria wants. She said she doesn’t want the business to fail, as it’s better than an empty lot or abandoned storefront.
Instead, Victoria wants Sapstein and his staff to learn how to “deal” with customers or to turn away students at the door before they pay so they don’t expect to be able to stay at the cafe.
“Truth be told, I don’t want him to leave,” Victoria said. “I just want [Sapstein] to respect people. I was an adult, but that could have went wrong real quick.
“My biggest concern is that could have been a 16-year-old, a 17-year-old standing up for themselves, and they could have gotten arrested, fingerprinted and [made] a felon for nothing.
“My fear is that one day my 13-year-old might wake up and say, ‘Hey, this is wrong and I don’t want to get kicked out. Can you not kick me out?'”
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