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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

While in-person protests swarm the physical Philadelphia Starbucks where two black men were questionably arrested last week, a virtual protest has taken over the cafe’s Yelp page.

The rating for the 1801 Spruce St. location has plummeted to one star, and the page now has more than 2,000 reviews posted to it. (A nearby Starbucks, by comparison, has a 3-star rating and only 50 reviews.)

A majority of the reviews appear to have been added after the incident last Thursday spiraled into national news — and many were written by people outside of Philly. As of Monday morning, the page presented posts from users in California, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, Virginia and Arizona, among other states.

Some of the reviews do mention actually visiting the location, but most of the recent ones focus on the April 12 incident, decrying what people view as Starbucks’ racist policies or racist behavior of its employees. A few examples:

“Cons: you’ll probably get arrested for sitting and waiting for someone if you’re black. Pros: if you’re a white supremacist, you’ll probably feel right at home.”
— Janelle C. from San Diego

“I pray that Starbucks takes a serious lesson from the embarrassment these employees have caused the integrity of their company.”
— Chanel G from Honolulu.

“If Starbucks thinks they are going to get out of this without firings and an official company wide policy change, I see some commercial real estate availability on every corner in this nation by this coming December.”
— John S. from Aurora, Co.

Officially, it’s against Yelp policy to use its pages this way.

“[R]eviews aren’t the place for rants about a business’s employment practices, political ideologies, extraordinary circumstances, or other matters that don’t address the core of the consumer experience,” reads a line in the company’s published general content guidelines.

However, practicing social activism via online reviews has become commonplace — so much so that the company has a standard procedure in place for dealing with this kind of situation, per Michelle Cassidy, Yelp senior community and marketing director.

“There is currently an active cleanup alert on the listing,” Cassidy said, “which explains the action Yelp takes in this type of circumstance.”

The cleanup alert warns visitors that the location’s rating may be experiencing volatility because it’s in the news, and alerts users that posts “motivated by the news coverage” may be removed.

Whether or not this weeding process has begun is not clear, because dozens and dozens of angry 1-star reviews still remain on the 18th and Spruce Starbucks page as outrage continues to build over the arrests.

There’s little disagreement over the general outlines of what happened:

  • On April 12, around 4:30 p.m., two men entered the cafe and sat down without buying anything; they were waiting for a friend
  • They attempted to use the bathroom and were told it was for paying customers only
  • A Starbucks employee called the police and said the men were trespassing
  • Police arrived and left with the two men in custody
  • The men were released without being charged some eight hours later

But it’s the details that are under scrutiny — and the response of the parties involved.

Activists, including people associated with Black Lives Matter, Philly for REAL Justice and the Black & Brown Workers Cooperative, have called for the employee who summoned the police to be fired, for the officers who made the arrests to be dismissed and for Starbucks to change its policies so this does not happen again.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and regional vice president Camille Hymes have insisted that company policy is to blame, and not any specific employee.

Johnson traveled to Philly Sunday night to address the situation. He is expected to meet with Mayor Kenney, Police Commissioner Ross and other community leaders. He also expressed interest in meeting with the two men who were arrested.

Meanwhile, Yelpers aren’t letting up.

Negative reviews continue to proliferate, with half a dozen new rants appearing in the first few hours of Monday morning.

Among the 1-star posts are a few trolls, too. “This Starbucks does a great job of getting rid of thugs that loiter so you can drink your coffee in peace,” wrote Brad W. from Philadelphia. This was his first review, and his profile shows zero friends.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...