More than 100 members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and supporters rallied Sunday afternoon at the Center City Starbucks where one of their fraternity brothers, Rashon Nelson, was arrested this month, an event that sparked international outrage.
Speakers addressed the crowd with a mix of hope and conciliation. At times, they expressed anger at the social injustice they said they see nationwide.
"The strength of this country depends on us being able to work together as one," said Grand Basileus Antonio F. Knox Sr., Omega Psi Phi's national leader, "We need to take this opportunity to move forward. We're asking Starbucks, and we're going to ask others, to partner with us to create change to make that difference, because now is the time."
Terrance Jenkins opened the rally with the cry, "My skin color is not a crime." Jenkins is president of the graduate chapter of Omega Psi Phi, which advises the undergraduate chapter at Bloomsburg University. Nelson, who attended Bloomsburg, was not at the rally.
Jenkins, who helped organize the rally, took a dig at Starbucks when he told the crowd management had invited rally participants to take a seat inside the store at 18th and Spruce Streets.
"Brothers, I do encourage you to take a seat in there. Maybe a minute. Maybe not two. You don't want to press your luck," he said, alluding to the short time Nelson and Donte Robinson, both 23, sat in the Starbucks before being escorted out in handcuffs.
Organizers invited representatives from 30 fraternity chapters from New York to Virginia. Their goal was to send a message to Starbucks and the nation over the April 12 arrests, which went viral when a customer shared a video of Nelson and Robinson being removed by police from the store. A manager called police after the pair were asked to leave because they hadn't bought anything. The men were waiting for a third man to arrive for a business meeting.
"We will no longer tolerate being classified as second-class citizens," said the Rev. Frank Smart, pastor of Greater Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Trenton. Smart is a member of the fraternity and was one of the organizers.
The store, near Rittenhouse Square, has been the site of protests and calls for a boycott since the arrests. The company has apologized — as has Richard Ross, Philadelphia's police commissioner. Starbucks also scheduled racial bias training for 8,000 stores next month.
Camille Hymes, regional vice president in the mid-Atlantic for Starbucks, bustled around the store as members of the fraternity took advantage of the invitation to sit inside after the rally.
"We're looking forward to partnering with community leaders to begin the process of healing in a peaceful and positive way," Hymes said.
Michael Roepel, a West Philadelphia resident and a member of the fraternity's Zeta Iota Iota chapter, said he thought other corporations could learn from Starbucks' problems.
"It can't stop now," said Roepel, 70, a retired city planner, who recalled going to Gimbel Bros. when he was 13 with money earned from a paper route. While there, he said, he was followed as if he were a shoplifter.
"I'm always sensitive to that when I go in places," Roepel said.