Dispatch from Ferguson: Convenience Store Owners Talk Race

By Deepa Iyer Oct 14, 2014

In the days after white police officer Darren Wilson killed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, the Ferguson Police Department released a security video taken from Ferguson Market & Liquor that allegedly shows Brown participating in an unrelated theft. Many South Asians who saw the video began to wonder whether the store worker in the video was South Asian and whether the business was South-Asian owned and operated. It is. An Indian businessman, Mike Patel, owns not only Ferguson Market and Liquor but also leases several other stores, including a beauty supply store and Sam’s Meat Market and More, to other immigrants, some of whom are Arab-American.

Those of us who remember the tensions that arose between Korean-owned business owners and African-Americans in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992 were concerned about what might occur in Ferguson, Missouri. As the events unfolded in mid-August, I asked civil rights attorney Angela Oh, who was an important figure in building bridges between communities in Los Angeles, for advice. She was clear: Monitor the media because they often inflame tensions. Remember that the underlying problems that communities of color and immigrants face are similar–structural racism, economic distress, neglected neighborhoods. And give people opportunities to connect with each other to find solutions to these shared challenges.

October 10, I traveled to Ferguson to join a group of South Asians, Muslims, Arabs and Asian-Americans for the National Weekend of Resistance.We were there to stand in solidarity, to learn and listen, and to lift up the central message that black lives matter. During the weekend, Faizan Syed, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in St. Louis, organized visits for us with a few Arab, Muslim and South Asian small-business owners in St. Louis and Ferguson.

We started at Yeatman Market on the north side of St. Louis, an area known to be violent. Palestinian-American Zuhdi Masri has owned the store for 32 years. Working closely with local African-American leaders, including Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity’s Ramona Williams, Masri has been able to broker agreements between area gangs. As we left, Linda Sarsour from the National Network of Arab American Communities took pictures with children who were playing outside the market near a gazebo. "You wouldn’t have seen kids playing there a few years ago," said Masri.

We then drove out to Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue, where many small businesses – beauty supply, take-out restaurants, small markets and liquor marts – still had reminders of August unrest on their storefronts. Sheets of plywood with spray-painted messages such as "open for business" covered parts of the stores.

At the Ferguson Market & Liquor, I spoke with a clerk who didn’t want to be identified. The clerk* said that he knows and appreciates his regular customers, who are mostly African-American. He said that even though it suffered some damage, people from the community stood guard outside of the store during the unrest. When I asked him about racial tensions between the immigrant store owners and African-American residents, he shrugged it off. There’s some shoplifting and name-calling here and there, he said. "But the real problem is with cops who stop African-Americans" without cause. 

The Ferguson Market & Liquor clerk and other immigrant workers might not be on the streets of Ferguson with African-American protestors night after night, but there seemed to be an understanding of the racial realities in Ferguson, especially when it comes to police. And, there seemed to be tacit support of the call for justice, which might also be the opening to have deeper and broader conversations. In fact, over the coming months, Neelu Panth and DeBorah Ahmed, who work with A Better Family Life in St. Louis, are planning roundtables between immigrant small-business owners and African-American leaders in the area.

In my short time inside Ferguson Market & Liquor and some of the other stores, I noticed a familiar back-and-forth between customers and workers that comes with seeing each other often. Here’s a Facebook post from Sam’s Market and More written on August 16, after the store was damaged, that speaks to that rapport:

During this hard time, SAMs meat market staff would like to thank all the [people who] came to the store asking if we need some help. [We can’t] forget the people [who] helped us and [gave us] a hand… At this time all we can promise [is that we’ll] be back as soon as we can, in business [and] to continue supporting our community.

Perhaps Ferguson is sparking not only a national awakening about the urgency of police brutality but also opportunities for people to address their shared struggles at the most local level – based on the simple understanding that this is "our community."

Deepa Iyer is the former executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. Along with writing and consulting, she serves on the board of Race Foward, Colorlines’ publisher. She tweets at @dviyer

*Post has been altered since publication to lessen detail about clerk and to quote him.