A former regional director of a Philadelphia Starbucks cafe at the center of a racially charged incident that sparked national protests of the company is now suing her former employer for racial discrimination. The company, she alleges, fired her, a white female, and unfairly punished other white employees in order to appease protesters.
Shannon Phillips, the former regional director whose region included a Center City Philadelphia Starbucks, says she was fired less than a month after one of the store’s managers called police to remove two black men who remained in the cafe after refusing to order anything.
Phillips says she was terminated “because she objected to placing the white district manager at the 18th and Spruce Streets store on administrative leave for purportedly paying lower salaries to black workers than their white counterparts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Thursday.
“Phillips, who lives in South Jersey and worked for the coffee chain for 13 years, says Starbucks’ reason for disciplining the manager was ‘factually impossible,’ as the company’s ‘Partner Resources’ branch sets employee salaries without input from the store’s district manager,” the paper reports.
In response, Phillips has filed a lawsuit against the company alleging racial discrimination. Her attorney has asked for a jury trial.
In a statement to CBS3 Philadelphia, Starbucks denied the accusation. “We deny the claims of the lawsuit and are prepared to defend our case in court,” a Starbucks spokesperson told the outlet.
The national controversy that preceded Phillips’ firing began with a viral video posted by an activist and writer who now describes herself on Twitter as “that white lady who tweeted the Starbucks video then co-founded the [From Privilege to Progress] movement.”
“The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything,” Melissa “That White Lady” DePino tweeted on April 12 of last year along with a video of police escorting two black men out of the Center City Starbucks. “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.”
@Starbucks 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. pic.twitter.com/0U4Pzs55Ci
— Melissa “That White Lady” DePino (@missydepino) April 12, 2018
The two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, told police and the press in subsequent interviews that they were simply waiting for another business partner to arrive for a meeting before they ordered.
The manager who contacted police says she told the men when they asked to use the restroom that the store policy is that they must first order something. She says they refused to order anything and instead chose to sit down. After allegedly warning them she would have to call police, she did so, telling police in a recorded call, “I have two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.”
According to Christopher Norris, who interviewed the manager, she cited “a corporate policy germane exclusively to Center City Philadelphia locations prohibits excessive loitering.” If that policy is violated, Norris explained, “then management has the discretion to ensure it’s enforced, even if it means calling the police.”
When the officers arrived, they asked Nelson and Robinson to leave. After the two men refused, the officers handcuffed them and escorted them out of the cafe.
Philadelphia PD Commissioner Richard Ross defended the actions of his officers. “It is important to emphasize and underscore that these officers had legal standing to make this arrest,” he said. “Again, they were called to the scene because employees said that they were trespassing. It is important for me to say, in short, that these officers did absolutely nothing wrong. They followed policy. They did what they were supposed to do. They were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen, and instead, they got the opposite back.”
“I can tell you that there was a case involving one of our sergeants, probably a couple years ago, who went to Starbucks in full uniform and he was also denied access to the restroom,” said Ross. “So they are at least consistent in their policy.”
Five days after the incident, Starbucks issued a news release announcing that the company “will be closing its more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores.”
“I’ve spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in a statement featured in the release. “While this is not limited to Starbucks, we’re committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”
This article has been expanded to include more details of the lawsuit.