ST. PETERSBURG — Yasmine James stood outside the McDonald's on 34th Street S, speaking so soft the surrounding crowd could just barely hear her words of gratitude.
"I am very thankful for you guys coming out here to support me," James said.
By the first day of 2019, the 20-year-old was flung into viral fame — hailed as some kind of boxing star because of her efforts on New Year's Eve to fend off an irate customer upset by a straw policy inside her McDonald's lobby. The man, now facing two separate assault charges, grabbed hold of James' collar, dragging her across the counter in an altercation captured on video.
On Tuesday, she pledged to a small crowd — made up mostly of 40 fellow Florida fast-food workers — that she would continue to fight to end workplace violence and demand McDonald's step up training to protect its employees. Other woman of color in attendance said James gave them the strength to speak out, too.
"None of this would be happening without you," said Laura Rollins, a 66-year-old McDonald's employee who traveled to the protest from Fort Lauderdale. "I really just want to give her a hug."
James fought the customer — Daniel Willis Taylor, 40 — alone for several seconds, before another employee stepped up to help. James and other McDonald's employees say that's because the fast-food corporation and others like it do little to train them to handle violence or unruly customers. Women who attended Tuesday's protest said they know exactly how James has felt — left to figure things out on their own.
The protest was organized by the Fight for $15 movement, an activist group working to raise minimum wages.
"With McDonald's, it's money before employees," said Gail Rogers, a 59-year-old crew trainer at the Tampa Ybor City location.
McDonald's has responded to the incident so far by making counseling available to employees and hiring an external investigator to look into the altercation and review how it responds to such incidents moving forward.
That same counseling service is something Rogers had tried to get for herself more than a year ago. She was left with horrifying nightmares after one of her coworkers, Howell E. Donaldson III, was arrested on four murder charges in the 2017 Seminole Heights slayings. Ms. Gail — as her coworkers call her — worked several shifts with Donaldson over roughly two months.
"There's nights I'd awaken and I didn't know where to turn," she told the crowd, tearing up. "Yes, I asked for counseling. Yesterday, I was told it was there for me, but no one came to me before."
She said she left voicemails at different McDonald's numbers before deciding to get help using the insurance she has through Hillsborough County. She works 32 hours a week, just under the threshold to qualify for benefits with her restaurant.
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Rogers said she's dealt with her share of nasty customers — one, she said, who even pulled out a gun. But by the time police arrive, she said the unruly or violent customer has already long fled.
"At the end of the day," James said in a statement after the rally, "we are all human and we all deserve to be respected and to feel safe."
McDonald's has said it's committed to the safety of its employees and takes what happened seriously. On Tuesday, the company hired an off-duty police officer to stand outside the restaurant at 34th Street S, according to St. Petersburg police.
Before leaving, the crowd wrapped itself around James, cheering.
"Who got your back?" they chanted. "We got your back."
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.