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Escalation of Hostilities

Simmering resentments between an Arab-owned store and its African-American customers spill out into the street.

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Nimer Salem stands in the doorway of his cousin's corner store in West Garfield Park waiting for the protesters to arrive. It's Saturday afternoon, a bright, hot day, and while he waits, little kids walk into the building at Madison and Keeler and walk back out with sodas, candy, and freezer pops. African Supermarket, which Salem manages for his cousin, also sells diapers, milk, eggs, toilet paper, cigarettes, beer, liquor, and lunch meat, some of which is made with pork.

At one o'clock Salem looks nervously down Madison and thinks he sees the blue van that the protesters arrived in the previous Saturday, June 1. A group of four or five guys piled out of the van, then stood outside the store, passing out hand-lettered flyers that said, "Brothers and sisters, this store so-called 'African Supermarket' which isn't black owned, insults & wrongly treats black customers. Please don't support it! Go to another store. Lets unite and demand respect. Koreans, Arabs, Jews & whites must stop misusing our people. Pass the word!" Ironically, Salem says, that day the store did more business than it had on any other day all year. But during the week he heard from some of his customers that the protesters were planning something bigger for the coming weekend.

At 1:10 two men wearing knit skullcaps arrive bearing more flyers and hand-lettered signs. Salem watches, arms folded, as they begin talking to passersby in front of the store. One of the men keeps saying, "Don't buy disrespect."

Soon more cars pull up, filled with men and women and children and signs. A large woman in fuchsia African robes organizes several boys and girls on the sidewalk and starts them marching with the adults.

One of the signs says, "Stop pimpin' our sisters, our children, and our community." Another says, "No respect. No store. Don't patronize." Yet another says, "Swine, cancer sticks and wine. Kills black people!" A chant goes up: "Don't buy disrespect! Don't buy disrespect!"

Salem, whose family is Palestinian, says the protests were sparked by an incident two weeks earlier, when he caught a woman shoplifting. "She steal some stuff, and we try to take it back," he says. "She hit me in my stomach. I just take her outside. That's all that happened."

Salim Abdul-Khaliq, one of the guys in skullcaps, tells a different story. He's a bus driver, and he says he overheard the woman talking about the incident on his route: "She said that she went in the store and the only thing she did was ask a question or something, and for some reason the Arab called her a black bitch. I asked this guy that was with her and witnessed this. He said, 'Yeah, at this location we've had problems out of them for a long time.' She said the men of the community did not demand respect for their women, as do other ethnic communities. So I asked her a few more questions, and then told her I will take a visit to that store to find out what was going on."

Abdul-Khaliq, who also heads a group called the Black Community Task Force, says that when he and some of his fellow activists approached employees in the store on June 1 they were laughed at and treated rudely, so they went outside and began demonstrating. He says the building's owner, a black man, came outside and told them to clear off. "I told him he didn't own the sidewalk and we had a right to peacefully demonstrate." Then the police were called. "I informed them that we're not here for any illegal reason and we're just taking advantage of our constitutional right."

Abdul-Khaliq says that once the cops left, a group of gangbangers arrived and said they'd been paid by the store owners to beat up the protesters. "When the gangbangers saw that we had a positive cause--they were some intelligent young men at the same time--they said, 'You better keep on doing what you doing. We support you 100 percent, because these people have disrespected us.' They walked on peacefully. At that point I was shocked, and I got angry and I made the statement that we would be back."

Abdul-Khaliq says he lost the phone number of the woman who made the original complaint, and he hasn't been able to track her down. But he claims that while he was demonstrating outside the store he heard even more sinister rumors: "This is the word that we have got from certain people that are familiar with that area--that they have been sexually taking advantage of young girls and welfare mothers by exchange of products like Pampers, cookies, candy, things of that nature." But Abdul-Khaliq says he doesn't know where to find those women either. "To be honest with you," he says, "I have not dialogued with any of the black females in that area about this. It is hearsay, I must admit."

Hearsay or not, Abdul-Khaliq spread the word. E-mails went out describing the alleged sexual abuse, though not the original incident, which Abdul-Khaliq acknowledged involved no sexual abuse. He alerted reporters at the Defender and community newspapers, and he went on WVON announcing a protest and boycott the following Saturday. Abdul-Khaliq says he had other concerns too. "We want people to understand that the Koran condemns Arab-owned liquor stores," he says. "They allege to be Muslims, but obviously they are not practicing Islam if they are selling intoxicants. No Muslim can be in business and sell wine."

Salem and his family, who are Muslims, have operated the store for 12 years. He denies the rumors that any of his six employees are trading goods for sex. And he denies that he hired gangbangers to squash the protest the week before. He says he has pretty good relations with his customers and produces a three-page petition saying so, which he notes was covered with signatures in just an hour. "We never have no problem with the customers," he says. "We treat them good. Everything is cool. I told my guys when they started working here, 'Be cool with the people, because the customer is our paycheck.'"

His landlord, Tommie Foster, backs him up. Foster says he'd happily rent to anyone who could pay, but the protesters are "a bunch of black assholes, and they think the white man gonna give them somethin'."

Foster owns a few buildings in the neighborhood, and as the protest grows he pulls up a chair on the sidewalk to keep an eye on things. He says he invited Abdul-Khaliq to come to his office to talk but he never showed. "I told him last week I would open his eyes," Foster says. "And I'm gonna give him some advice--next place he go, see the owner first and see if the owner can solve the problem. I probably could have solved this if he'da came to me first. I could have solved it without all this hoo-ray. But he wants to be seen on TV and on the news--which means nothing to me. It doesn't mean nothing. This United States of America is ran on one thing: m-o-n-e-y. And if you ain't got no money nobody gives a darn about you. Am I true? Well, I'm true. Put it in you shoe and walk on it."

Salem has other supporters too. George Ward, the son of a woman who sometimes does African Supermarket's bookkeeping, stands in the store's doorway shouting at the protesters, though it's hard to hear him through the din of angry voices. "This is my neighborhood store!" he screams. "I been here all my life--ain't none of these people out here! They don't know what the fuck they talking about!" Ward is joined by his wife and mother and a few other regular customers, but mostly they're drowned out. A few of the protesters begin referring to Ward as the "house nigger."

Khalif Tyehimba, from the Black Community Task Force, is leading the protesters with a microphone and karaoke machine that Abdul-Khaliq brought. "They will shoot you down in cold blood if you disrespect one of they women!" he shouts. "They will shoot you down where you stand! They will shoot you down in cold blood. They will shoot you down, God as my witness, they will shoot you down! Down to the ground! Don't call in the police. They will let you rot. We ain't gonna take the bullet. We ain't gonna take the bullet for the A-rabs! Do they respect us? Do they show us any type of appreciation? Who gonna take the bullet for the A-rabs? We ain't gonna take the bullet!"

One woman in a tank top warns away passing motorists: "Bunch of perverts! Bunch of perverts in there! Don't patronize!"

A group of Fruits of Islam from the nearby Muhammad Mosque #2B stroll through the crowd with stacks of The Final Call under their arms, then move on. A few police officers arrive, parking their squad cars in the middle lane of Madison, and stand on the outer edge of the crowd with their arms folded. A woman in the picket line waves a copy of The Glorious Quran as she marches.

"Shut 'em down!" the crowd chants. "Shut 'em down!"

Two little girls clutching dollars push their way through the crowd. They hesitate in front of the door when a stout man in a brightly patterned African shirt tells them, "Please don't go in there."

"You can't do that," a cop tells him. "You can stand away from the door and say that, but not there." The girls go inside.

A reporter from the Austin Voice, one of the few white faces on the scene, stands on the edge of the crowd with a camera. "This is a constant problem throughout this area," he says. "The Arab stores and the Koreans. And we're gonna start some meetings--our newspaper--because of this type of problem. The Commission on Human Relations does absolutely nothing. Instead they side with the Arabs and the Koreans and say that the people who live here should understand that it's a different culture. Baloney. These are people that are ripping off the community. They show no respect, and it's been a continuing problem. And it's gonna heat up if something isn't done. I think it could become violent."

"We don't want you here!" chants the crowd. "We don't want you here!"

Salem emerges from the store and begins a heated discussion with a tall man in deep blue robes. He invites the man in to talk to his employees, two of whom live in the neighborhood. The robed man, Abdul-Khaliq, and a few other men disappear inside the store. They emerge 15 or 20 minutes later and start telling people that one of Salem's employees just called a woman a "black bitch."

"You're not welcome here!" chant the protesters, of whom there are now about 50. "You're not welcome here!"

Suddenly heads in the crowd turn. An enormous truck with flashing lights and "Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms" on its side is coming up Madison. Marching behind it is a large crowd of schoolchildren in matching T-shirts carrying signs that say, "Stop the Killing." Behind them is a group of adults carrying signs that read, "Lisa Madigan Attorney General." Behind them is Lisa Madigan.

The candidate begins working the protest. Abdul-Khaliq approaches her. "We don't want to be disrespected," he tells her. "We want economic fairness."

Madigan nods as she shakes his hand.

"They just called another black woman a bitch up in here just a while ago," he says. "We're tired of it. We want somebody in office that's gonna--"

"Brad, how are you?" says Madigan, noticing the reporter from the Austin Voice. "Nice to see you."

"I been in Chicago all my life," Abdul-Khaliq goes on.

"I hear ya," says Madigan. "I hear ya. I've been doing work on the west side. Keep up the good work." She moves down the sidewalk shaking hands and soon is on her way.

Tommie Foster is still sitting in his chair arguing with everyone within earshot. He points to a liquor store down the street next to the Nation of Islam mosque. "See that big store over there?" he says. "They not picketing that. You know why? That's owned by a white guy. They're not Arabs. They are picketing these people because they Arabs. Why don't they go over there? Because they know that white man not gonna take it, right? Well, he probably got cool with City Hall."

"Don't buy disrespect! Don't buy disrespect!"

A young man in dark glasses and a large afro, Orron Kenyetta I, takes the microphone and shouts at George Ward: "You act like a battered woman who can't leave her husband. The abuse is obvious. Everybody knows you getting your ass whupped at night. The bruises is on you face!" Kenyetta has yet another story about what happened two weeks ago. He says that one of Salem's employees, a guy named Muhammad, got fresh with his 14-year-old sister. He says he came up from the south side and slugged the guy. Salem responds, "There's no Muhammad working in here, and there's nothing like that happening in the store."

By 3:45 only a half dozen people are left marching, but Tyehimba is still working the karaoke machine, shouting, "Don't buy disrespect! Don't buy disrespect!" A dozen or so other protesters are watching, and two bike cops are posted on either side of the storefront's door.

A reporter and cameraman from Channel Two show up. First they interview some protesters, then they go inside and talk to Salem and some customers. Then they leave.

At 4:15 Abdul-Khaliq is ready to call it a day. He takes the microphone from Tyehimba and thanks the crowd. "We won't be intimidated," he says. "We will continue to make demands until the foreign business community understands that respect must be established in the community for the black consumer. Thank you once again. All praises due to almighty God. Thank you once again from the bottom of my heart. And the struggle continues. The struggle continues, so Allahu akbar! We will be back. We will be back--no ifs and buts about it!"

Protesters begin shaking hands and embracing and saying good-bye.

Salem stands in the doorway and watches them leave. A teenage girl on her way into the store stops and asks him, "Why they protesting y'all?"

"I don't know," he says. "They say we disrespect people."

"You ain't never disrespect me," she says.

"We play with you," he says. "We treat you fair like anyone else."

The girl goes inside, and Salem says he didn't recognize any of the protesters. He adds that he asked Abdul-Khaliq where the woman who'd made the first complaint was. "I asked them, 'Where's the lady?' She's not here. 'Where's the guy what you are talking about?' He is not here. So?"

By this time, no one's left on the sidewalk except Foster, who's talking quietly with the last of the protesters, a young man wearing a long black cloth on his head.

Just before he left, Abdul-Khaliq told Foster he was organizing another protest for the next Saturday, and Foster invited him to come by his office on Monday to see if they could settle things first. "Him and two other guys with him said they was coming," says Foster. "I said, 'If you don't come Monday, you know what? I'm calling you a liar.' We gonna sit down and talk like a man--what he should have done before he came here first. He should have came to me, explained this to me, and I could have dealt with these guys without all this out here. Because if they need to put them out I own the lease. I could have put them out. I say who come and go. I'll sell you the whole damn building for $2 million. Bring me the money. You ain't got no money? Shut up. Right? That's my building. I ain't giving away nothin', because I worked too hard for it."

Foster would go on, but his wife, who's been standing behind him, has had enough. "Come on," she says, "let's get these chairs inside."

Foster stands up. He and the young man shake hands and say good-bye.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brad Cummings--Austin Voice.

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