Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

The Fire In Oakland: Lessons From South Central

Our area has been abuzz with the trashing, burning and looting of two Muslim-owned liquor stores in West Oakland. First, twelve people–resembling members of the Nation of Islam because of their bowtie-and-suit dress–came into San Pablo Liquor and trashed the shelves with baseball bats. They told the owners it was not right for a Muslim to sell liquor. They did the same at New York Market.

The surveillance video from the San Pablo liquor store incident made headlines across the country. The owner of New York Market was allegedly then kidnapped and held while the store was burned down and looted. Two men of Yusef Bey’s local Black Muslim organization–one his son, the other a longtime associate–have turned themselves in, and four more are sought.

(For the record, the late Bey separated from the Nation of Islam amidst some nasty allegations. His organization has no formal relationship with the Nation.)

Our boy Adisa Banjoko comments here on the controversy:

As a Muslim convert I feel that there is no legitimate reason that Muslim Arabs from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Palestine or Jordan should be selling products to black people that they would never try to sell in their own countries. However, I also feel that to vandalize and burn down these stores also reflects badly on Islam. The Muslim shopkeepers, vandals, arsonists, and kidnappers have all done wrong by their neighbors and by Islam.

Somewhere between tearing the building apart and doing nothing lies a non-violent solution that can be enacted by the community. The time for peace is now. However, unless and until the issue of liquor-store infestations of black ghettos are properly addressed, I fear we may see more of the opposite.

From my point of view, living not too far from where it all went down, the immediate trigger to last week’s incidents probably had less to do with a political agenda than with some street-type business.

But if we want to go back to the early 90s in South Central Los Angeles as a model for lessons to draw, here’s what I can say:

The lack of access to inexpensive, quality food in the inner city is an important part of the context for the fostering of immigrant-owned liquor-stores.

I wrote this in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:

The bigger problem for the community was that liquor stores were poor substitutes for grocery stores. Since the 1965 Watts Riots, very few supermarkets had reopened, and even fewer were built in the area. Vons had three hundred stores in the region, but only two in South Central. Worse, study after study found that supermarkets in South Central were the most expensive in the county, with grocery prices up to 20 to 30 percent higher than those in the suburbs and exurbs. Politicians would not do anything about it. It was as if they figured liquor was more important to inner-city residents than food. Immigrant liquor-store entrepreneurs did not provide what people really needed, but they still filled a void that no one else was willing to.

As for public policy fixes, I think Karen Bass’ work with the Community Coalition to create a multiracial front to convert liquor stores into other businesses and bring in real supermarkets was more empowering and community-building than Danny Bakewell’s efforts to get the Korean American and Arab American storeowners simply to sell their stores to African American owners. One tried to push for businesses that the community needed, the other simply tried to change the face behind the counter.

In the end, however, the liquor store conversion push failed because the LA City Council allocated much less than a million dollars to resolve the problem. This, out of a promised $4 billion public-private Rebuild LA effort. Less than a dozen stores were actually converted–in most cases to laundromats. Nothing added up to anything like a real economic development plan.

In that regard, here’s a good description of the community efforts going on Oakland around liquor-store closure. Still, there’s little talk of conversion going on.

posted by @ 10:40 am | 3 Comments

3 Responses to “The Fire In Oakland: Lessons From South Central”

  1. Michelle says:

    It’s unfortunate that these stores and the stores’ owners fail victim to such violence. Violence is never an effective means in improving an improvised community. However, I understand these mens’ actions. These men rationalized their actions by concluding that liquor was one of the many “poisons” that was destroying their community, so they went after the root problem—the liquor stores and their owners who were profiting off the alcohol addiction of some blacks in the black community. Chang states, “It was as if [Politicians] figured liquor was more important to inner-city residents than food” whereas these men figured that liquor stores and their owners were bringing more harm than good to the black community—they sought to correct the problem. I disagree with these mens’ behavior, but I sympathize with their desire to rid their community of establishments that hurt their neighbors rather than help.

  2. Courtney R. says:

    It’s very unfortunate that our government allows for this type of stuff to go on. After reading Chang’s except I am amazed by the stats. How is it that South Central has far more liqour stores than grocery stores? Then again how is it that the government refuses to do something about it. And then they wonder why there is so much poverty and crime. The government allows this type of thing to manifest and corrupt of comminuties. It’s amazing to me how suburban parts of town have restriction on the amount of adult stores can be in one area while in South Central they promoting the comsumption of alcohol before they promote feeding your family. What kind of message does that send? The immigrants that run the stores should not be held responsible, the AMERICAN GOVERNMENT should be. This is the governemnts way of continuing to dehumanize the black race. What could possible make them think that alcohol is more important to us then food. I believe the blame is being placed on the wrong individuals. The politicians are the ones to blame because they have allowed this nonsense to go on.

  3. Karissa says:

    It seems that the only way that the world will pay attention to these cities if if the people decide to burn the stores. I agree totally with Michelle. Why is it that there are more liquor stores not only here but in “ghettos” or in predominately black communities.However, striking out at the Korean store owners abd burning down their establishments is not the way to go.

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