Philly’s Activists Continue to Address and Have an Impact on Social Justice Issues

The #SchoolToActivismPipeline is real.

When Nasiha Thompson-King was given a temporary reprieve and allowed to continue playing basketball for Mastery Charter last February, mere days after a referee would not allow her to enter a game wearing her traditional Muslim hijab, the then-sophomore knew that her fight over religious freedom was not over.

Behind a coalition that included state Rep. Sharif Street, religious leaders and others invested in upholding First Amendment rights, Thompson-King won her fight in late May when the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association abolished a rule requiring athletes to get prior approval to wear any head garment for religious or medical reasons.

“I didn’t want to take it off because of my religion,” said Thompson-King, who refused to remove her hijab and therefore did not play in a game the first time it became an issue. “I was excited when I was told the news. I was happy for myself and anyone else who wears hijab while playing basketball.”

Almost monthly, rights — whether religious as in Thompson-King’s case or the freedom for Blacks to assemble in public spaces — have come under fire in 2018. And Philadelphia, sometimes referred to as the “cradle of liberty,” can lay claim to a number of incidents that have garnered both national and international attention.

The arrest heard (and viewed) around the world

It only took Holly Hylton two minutes to call police on Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson after they arrived at the Starbucks located at 18th and Spruce streets on April 12 for the crime of asking to use the restroom while waiting for the arrival of a business partner.

Hylton, who no longer works for the coffee giant, was universally rebuked for her rash decision. After saying the arrest — captured on video and seen by millions — was justified, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross walked back that statement, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson called the arrest “reprehensible,” and Starbucks, which did more than $22 billion in revenues in 2017, shut down its more than 8,000 U.S. stores on the afternoon of May 26 for racial bias training.

Nelson and Robinson reached separate agreements with the city and Starbucks. The city agreed to pay them $1 each and set up a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs. The agreement with the company “will include a financial settlement as well as continued listening and dialogue between the parties,” Starbucks said in a statement.

Memorial Day dust-up brings changes to Lowe’s

On Memorial Day weekend, Will Mega, dean of students at the Sankofa Freedom Academy, made video recordings of his experiences at two local Lowe’s stores, one in West Philadelphia and the other in suburban Havertown, and posted them on social media.

Upon leaving the West Philadelphia store at 1500 N. 50th St., Mega, upset that he had to present his receipt while exiting, demanded to speak to the manager about the policy for checking receipts. Told that this was a “high theft” store, Mega, who filed a complaint with the Human Relations Commission, said this was “tantamount to racial profiling.”

Later, at the suburban store on May 27, Mega was surprised when he was not asked to show his receipt upon exiting. Mega asked an attendant if he was required to show his receipt. An African-American woman is heard on video saying, “No, I just waited on you. This is the white hood. We don’t do that here.”

Large media outlets such as The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal ran with the story. A few days later, Lowe’s announced that it was temporarily ending its receipt-checking policy at all of its 1,800 stores nationwide.

Mega didn’t expect his social media posts to garner the attention they have. He says he was just using the tools and technology available to everybody.

“The advent of social media has allowed everyone to be their own personal reporter,” Mega said. “If you record it and put it out there, it makes it difficult for people to ignore it.”

Trouble at a West Philadelphia movie theater

Ismael and Ashley Jimenez thought everything was all right when they asked for and received a refund after a “constant beeping” sound made watching a 7:30 p.m. showing of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” last Friday impossible.

But things took a turn for the worse, the couple said, when they were barred by theater employees from retrieving their children and their children’s friends still inside the auditorium of the Cinemark 6 at 40th and Walnut streets.

Ashley ignored the warning and retrieved the children from the auditorium. However, when she returned she found her husband, a teacher at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, surrounded by at least a half-dozen Philadelphia police officers the couple insists were called by the theater.

“It was excessive, of course,” Ismael Jimenez said.

Cinemark says it did not call the officers. A spokesperson for the company said a Philadelphia police officer working security that night saw the disturbance and requested backup. Police say the officers responded to the situation after an officer failed to respond to radio communications, causing the department to put out an “assist officer” alert.

Cinemark also called a Facebook posting by Ashley Jimenez “an erroneous social media report” that the family was not permitted to retrieve the children. The video has more than 60,000 views.

“At no time was the family restricted access to their children,” the spokesperson wrote in the statement.

The couple has demanded that the theater’s general manager be fired for “unnecessarily calling the police on a Black family for simply refusing to leave the theater without their children. They want Cinemark to clearly articulate their policy for contacting police in the event of an incident, and they are calling on city and state officials to pass legislation meant to deter frivolous misuses of police enforcement.”

Center City defense attorney Lauren Wimmer worked closely with Nelson and Robinson after their arrests. She said that while the Starbucks, Lowe’s and other cases are not directly related, she is surprised that they are as prevalent as they are.

“These types of incidents speak to the very heart of the racial and religious freedoms we see playing out more and more,” Wimmer said. “I’m often surprised that these types of incidents are so prevalent in 2018, much more than we’ve seen in prior years. It’s my belief that attitude adjustments and education will help fix these problems and issues.”

This article was written by John Mitchell and originally published in the Philadelphia Tribune.

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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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