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Starbucks the site of myriad rallies

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SEATTLE — When a black man was shot to death by a white police officer, a Seattle community leader called for a boycott of Starbucks, even though the coffee chain had nothing to do with the shooting.

When organic-food activists wanted to raise awareness of milk containing artificial bovine growth hormone, the protesters went to Starbucks, too — even though the company had already said it would work to stop using such milk.

And when suburbanites near San Diego wanted to fight the corporatization of their community, they targeted a planned Starbucks — not the Rite-Aid drug store or the Jack in the Box right up the road.

Across the country in recent months, protesters have been gathering at Starbucks.

They are hoping that the coffee chain's omnipresence and its socially conscious customers will help draw attention to such issues as racial profiling and food safety.

The protesters readily admit that Starbucks is not a bad corporate citizen.

The company has cultivated a socially conscious image by giving extensively to local charities, working to preserve the environment in areas where it buys coffee and using environmentally friendly products.

But that didn't stop Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumer Association, based in Little Marais, Minn., from going after Starbucks last spring, when he announced plans to picket Starbucks stores over the use of bovine growth hormone in some of the milk they serve.

Starbucks considers itself a victim of its own success.

"We are, I guess, in some ways accustomed to being front and center on some issues that I don't think we own," Orin Smith, Starbucks president and chief executive, said recently. "But it is the price of being so visible."

Starbucks began in 1971 with a single store in Seattle and began opening new shops at a frenetic pace in the mid-1990s. It now has 3,300 locations worldwide.

Perhaps the most bizarre stand against the company came in Seattle, where the Rev. Robert Jeffrey announced a boycott of a Starbucks store in a largely minority neighborhood that had recruited Starbucks.

Jeffrey wanted to draw attention to a police shooting a mile from the store, and chose Starbucks because of its political clout.

His largely ineffective boycott perplexed many in the neighborhood, who noted that one Starbucks store donates all of its profits to a private school that serves mostly black students. School director Doug Wheeler said he almost cried when he read about the boycott.

Despite the protests, the customers keep coming. For the quarter ended April 1, Starbucks reported earnings of $32.2 million, up 38 percent from the year-ago period.

At a downtown Seattle Starbucks recently, coffee drinkers seemed unconcerned about the protesters' complaints.

"Whatever's going to kill me, it's not going to be the milk in my coffee," said Brian Eckstrom, 44.