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Trouble in Store

Behind the Brooklyn boycott.

Following a dispute between a black "customer and a Korean merchant, blacks in a heavily Haitian part of Brooklyn's Flatbush section have been boycotting two Korean produce stores since the end of January. Protesters have kept the flow of customers to a trickle, vowing to drive the merchants from the neighborhood. Each side has made the inevitable Spike Lee allusions. In mid-May, in front of the Family Red Apple grocery store, a boycotter with a megaphone yelled, "Koreans must go. They should not be here in the first place. We are doing the right thing." Across the street the second Korean store displays a sign proclaiming: "Racism is wrong/Always … But ask yourself. Which side is preaching hate? Racism? Decide for yourself. Do the Right Thing."

As the Bensonhurst murder trial heightened more general concern about New York's racial climate, by May the boycott was threatening Mayor David Dinkins's aura as a racial healer. Actually, race relations were less dire than people feared, but at the time the prospect of racial unraveling seemed real. Not far from the boycott line, a black teen smashed the skull of a Vietnamese resident with a claw hammer, and his accomplices chanted, "Koreans go home." Already unsettled by crack and crime, the homeless and AIDS, New Yorkers had to confront the tribal animosities that continue to shape life in their city. As for the blacks and Koreans, tension emerged from the jostling of peoples with disparate experiences, sensibilities, and incomes. But the conflict had a less savory political side as well. Distinct from the irritations that gave it force, the boycott drew much of its strength from the angry passions of resurgent black power.

The details of the incident that triggered the boycott are murky. According to the protesters, the Koreans "disrespected an African sister," a Creole-speaking Haitian named Jiselaine Felissaint, who tired of wailing in the check-out line and headed for the door. When she refused the grocers' demand that she open her hag, they heat her savagely. The Koreans claim Felissaint paid two dollars for three dollars' worth of plantains and limes. When the cashier requested the dollar, she retorted, "Yon Chinese, Korean motherfucker. Go back to your country." The cashier said. "This is not your country, not my country, it's everybody's, right?" After an exchange of hot peppers and a tussle, the woman fell to the ground, claiming injury.

Rumors circulated that the Koreans had beaten a pregnant woman, that an elderly black woman was now in a coma. (The police and hospital reported a slight facial scratch.) The outraged crowd threw stones and bottles at the store. When a Korean look refuge in another produce store across the street, the crowd's wrath turned on it too. Through the spring, boycotters, ranging from two or three in the morning up to a few dozen in the evening, walked the picket line, Dinkins's representatives tried to resolve the dispute, but the boycotters never wavered: prosecute the Koreans, close both stores.

Some twenty-two weeks later the face-off remains. Business at both stores has plummeted from thousands of dollars a day to less than $50. Korean merchant organizations pump $8,000 a month into each store. Skittish about anti-Asian sentiment, they decry an effort by "storm troopers" to drive them out of black communities.

For one merchant, standing in the solitude of" his empty store, something perverse was happening. "Why do they chant, 'Korean people must go?' If you cut your hand, the color is the same…. We are all the same. But they say black is black power, black is special people." Across the street, another merchant asks, "How could we be rude to our customers? In this area, there are six fruit and vegetable stores. We are competing each other." His face betrays the strain of the siege. "This boycott is murder. This is mental killing. Why they do this to me?"

Part of the answer lies in the abrasions that since the early 1970s have created black-Korean conflict in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington. D.C., Baltimore, and elsewhere. The liberalized immigration law of the mid-'60s quickened the exodus of Koreans to the United Stales and led to a Korean takeover of retail niches in the ghetto economy. Blacks complain that Korean merchants do not treat them with dignity. As the slogan "Proud of Our Haitian Blood" indicates, the recently mobilized Haitians, smarting from the federal selection of their ethnicity as an AIDS risk factor, are especially sensitive to ethnic slight. And the rich vein of ethnocentrism in Korean culture and racist altitudes contribute to the blacks' sense that the Koreans, to borrow the ghetto vernacular, "dis" them. Even before he left South Korea, recalls one man, "I had the idea that blacks were dirty and aggressive from American films and from our experience with black soldiers. My very first day in America, I was afraid to go outside because of the dangerous blacks."

There is also a difference in cultural style. Koreans tend to shy away from direct eye contact as a sign of impoliteness, and they are not given to smiling at customers. Avoiding physical contact with men, Korean female cashiers may drop change on the counter. Self-exploitative long hours, lack of sleep, and imperfect English also make for brusqueness. At a meeting with blacks, a leader of the Korean Produce Association searched for commonalities — "Our Chang music is like your soul music: it comes from the heart. Like African Americans, we were enslaved" — but added, "We Koreans have great strength of endurance. We don't express our joy or laugh easily or share agonies."

At issue here are rival notions of natural customer-merchant relations. Caribbeans, used to the West Indian market economy, like to bargain. They take their mangoes to the register and oiler less than the price, or pluck a grape and lest the sweetness of the bunch. This sort of thing drives the merchants crazy. Some consider it tantamount to stealing. West Indians along Church Avenue tell you, "We never had these problems with the Jews!" and despite the improbable nostalgia, the lament has substance. The Korea Times, aware that black grievances are more than racist fabrications, has taken to warning merchants not to put profit above all else.

Finally, blacks resent the presumption that they are all shoplifters. For proud immigrants in this working-class neighborhood, many of whom rebuke what they see as the slothful ways of poor American blacks, the scrutiny of merchants is insulting. The problem is that Flatbush merchants do face endemic pilfering. The Church Avenue subway stop has been the scene of numerous muggings, and wolf packs recurrently terrorize the riders of the nearby D line. So merchants frequently resort to generalized suspicion. "How do we know which ones are going to steal?" asks a merchant. "We have to watch everybody."

Some merchants simply charge off theft. One explains, "The moment you make an issue of it, they start screaming, 'You racist.' They make everything racial. You just try to get them out of the store." The sad truth is that street realpolitik does work; a merchant who delivers only a mild rebuke will suffer incursions again. When Korean merchants try to open bags or stop customers, they touch a black sensitivity to the quick. Moreover, a Brooklyn minister observes, most incidents involve Korean men and black women, "We are supersensitized to that [disrespectful] attitude toward our women…. Black women have been the doormat of the men of every race in the world."

Economic dependency also charges merchant-customer relations. Historically, African Americans have shown their resentment of commercial outsiders by looting Jewish businesses during riots and by using the imagery of parasitic bloodsuckers. The Korean influx into black communities gave new life to this plaint. In 1981 the black Amsterdam News described the black merchants' response to "Koreans Dash for Harlem Cash" as "anti-Korean hysteria." In past blow-ups, Koreans have had to agree to repatriate profits in the community, to share entrepreneurial skills, and to donate money to community organizations, While some Flatbush boycott leaders speak of punishing "particular merchants," not all are so circumspect. Boycott rhetoric has brimmed with cries to buy black and to expel ethnic foreigners. A flyer for the Afrikan People's Farmers Market states, "We must control our money, what we buy and when, when we produce for them and when we don't…. No longer are we forced to shop with people who do not look like us."

Korean success generates other feelings. "The Koreans are claiming buildings we've dreamed of, that we've longed for, for years." Many feel that blacks once again are being denied their place in the ethnic queue by newcomers who are leaping over them. One boycott leader said that suddenly the Koreans "are everywhere. They are given money to establish themselves. How can poor people like that just come to this country and do that unless they have been given a fund? There's no one doing that for black people." In fact, the start-up capital for a grocery store is typically less than $10,000, and banks and the government are rarely its source. Koreans get capital from relatives, from their own labor and self-denial, and from mutual savings associations. They extract their profit from family labor and contrast their ferocious work ethic — for years many work twelve to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week — with the relaxed attitudes of blacks. A New York Post editorial, "Scapegoating New York's Koreans," argued that the Korean formula of hard work and loyal families "is a path open to any group that wants to follow it."

The Post implied what it did not say: blacks fail to travel that path, A cop in front of the boycott line sneers, "Great! They'll close the fucking store down. And you know what will replace it? A crackhouse." At a black-Korean consciousness-raising session, the most moderate blacks bristled at the phrase "hardworking Koreans," and replied, "We work hard too!" Equally problematic is the "you" in "Why can't you make it?" The underclass? West Indians? Blacks in general? West Indian homeowners who have reclaimed entire neighborhoods are also vindicating the old immigrant formula. Without hardworking Caribbean baby sitters, many white professionals could not work so hard either.

This trading of charges contains an agonizing argument about the relevance of immigrant precedents for black advancement. In truth, the Korean migrants have come from relatively middle-class backgrounds, and have brought class and organizational advantages that few others can boast. That still does not trump the implication of a black caller's question on a talk show on the black radio station WLIB: Why can't blacks fashion networks of mutual lending like the Koreans? On a show usually alert for any attempt to shift blame from white racism onto blacks themselves, this prompted the query, What if blacks swore off drugs for a day?

The call for blacks to amass capital by abstaining from cocaine underscores the truth embraced by those Muslims who boycott crackhouses rather than Korean grocers: racism is not the only obstacle to black progress, No matter how many Bensonhurst badasses remain in New York City, there is capital in the ghetto that could be mobilized for productive ends. A hundred pilgrimages to the grave of Malcolm X will not dispel this fact. If the goal of African Americans is empowerment, and not the rhetoric of empowerment, they cannot forever view themselves as the objects of external forces.

Slight, crime, and envy helped turn a minor scrap into something larger, but they don't explain the particular course of the boycott. Similar incidents have led to negotiated settlements. The grocers and Korean and black leaders look part in sessions arranged by the borough president to enhance mutual sensitivity. Yet boycott leaders, rejecting every overture, reduced all complexity to the non-negotiable issue of racist disrespect. To understand this, we need to look at the forces that gained ascendancy on Church Avenue and gave the boycott its edge of ethnocentric menace.

The boycott initially engaged the energy of diverse activists: community organizers, dissident local politicians with links to the community board and other Brooklyn elected officials, Muslims from the UMMA group, and mainstream Haitian religious and civic leaders. These forces reflect the growing power of Afro-Caribbean political assertion, which ranges from ethnic politics to racialist appeals. (A relic of its ethnic past, Jewish state senator Marty Markowitz represents the predominantly black area. In the past, Maurice Gumbs campaigned against him in calypso joints on the slogan, "Massa Day Done.")

But from the start, more alienated and nationalistic forces — both within and without the community — began to overshadow the eclectic elements among the boycott leadership. Fewer than two dozen people, many with strong nationalist sentiments, filled the two main boycott organizations. Death threats silenced a number of Haitian and Caribbean local leaders who disavowed racist rhetoric. When the Flatbush Coalition called in black activist Sonny Carson, other moderates departed.

Carson's presence galvanized the cry of "outside agitators." Church Avenue was a reprise of his previous efforts to shut down Korean grocers, notably in 1988 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In both cases there were allegations of extortion, and the boycott line was staffed by his colleagues in the December 12th Movement, a collection of black militants who mobilize frenetic "Days of Outrage," including one in 1989 in which protesters storming the Brooklyn Bridge injured forty-four cops in a shower of bricks and rocks. As a boycott impresario, Carson performed the same raucous activism that marked his rise from street tough to the head of Brooklyn CORE during the New York City school wars of 1968, when his florid anti-Semitism rankled the teachers' union. After a hiatus that included a prison term for kidnapping, in the mid-1980s Carson again took up his craft of racial provocation. When it was revealed that the Dinkins campaign, much to its embarrassment, had paid Carson $9,500 for a phantom get-out-the-vote drive, perhaps to keep the enragees quiet, Carson denied the old charge of anti-Semitism: "I am anti-white."

Despite the cry of African unity, the boycott became the work of a small, if diverse, vanguard that held a neighborhood captive to its torrid brand of resentment politics. A Flatbush Frontline Collective member seethed at this appraisal. "How would we look, African people hating people on account of their race?" Boycotters stress they have targeted only two Korean stores; within a few blocks, a half-dozen Korean stores operate unmolested. But racist thuggery has been more than an incidental aberration. Protesters have issued death threats, including the promise of a Soweto necklace of tires and gasoline. Some boycotters deterred shoppers with retaliatory threats of "We'll get you." They screech at the few blacks who have dared cross the line, "monkeys," "Uncle Toms," "motherfuckers," and, with pointed contempt, "Negroes." And they have filled the air with anti-Asian epithets. Without the imprecation and intimidation, the boycott would have collapsed long ago. The Koreans continued to receive sub-rosa support from some black customers. Interviewed away from the protesters, residents asserted, "They've been punished enough"; "We should start our own businesses, don't drive others out of business"; and "Those boycotters are lowlifes — why don't they get a job?" A Caribbean woman reflected, "Maybe the Koreans in that store are a little rough, and their manners are coarse, but there is no pattern of disrespect. The Koreans are just hardworking people. You can't go into people's stores without paying. It's not fair what they are doing to them."

Boycott leaders created a permanent Day of Outrage on Church Avenue. Whether cynically or in earnest, they used the emotive issue of the alleged heating to expand the market for black power politics. From the jump-off point of merchant politesse, their diatribes moved in a widening spiral: gliding from the emotive image of the abused Haitian woman to a diffuse sense of abused black people; dissolving the identity of the evil merchant-perpetrator in a generalized nefarious Korean and white "they"; and eliding the demand for justice for Jiselaine and the search for black power. One leader rambled:

Make sure these Korean racists leave our community for good…. Our tax monies are going to protect these  racists who beat up our women…. Wake up, black people. It's time For black people to control their own community…. Other ethnic groups come into black communities and exploiting people, it's happening in Harlem, it's happening in Flatbush, in Crown Heights, everywhere there are black people…. We are saying, no more savage racists in our community. They are sucking out the people's sweat…. They paint us as savages, but they caused the destruction of the entire Indian race.

Before one rally, loudspeakers broadcast a Malcolm X speech on revolution. Carson told the crowd, "Get ready for the Day of Outrage against racism. All the hot days are ahead. Racism lives in this country. Black power, Black power. Let's kick their ass." Some boycott activists, in court to challenge a restraining order, refused to stand when the judge entered and hissed rulings they opposed. Carson lashed out at the judge, "You are a racist. A black woman was attacked! We won't take your crap." When court officers tried to remove Carson, his supporters prepared to intercede. He took them to the brink, then pulled them back with a decision to leave peacefully. Outside, behind an African liberation flag, they chanted, "We will be in the streets every day, freedom or death!"

Carson claims that "the inheritors of that system [of slavery and segregation] are imposing the same exploitation on us." Black men, he argues, are the targets of genocidal schemes — including black-on-black crime and crack — "to eliminate black men. We are an endangered species." Has there been any progress? I ask him. Arsenio Hall, David Dinkins, and Jesse Jackson, he replies, are part of a "brilliant plan to convince blacks they can get a piece of the pie."

Carson reiterates the Malcolm X prescription, "We work for the liberation of our people by any means possible," and cites his adage about white fear of a black man with a knife in the dark. He heralds the "savagery" of black men; he wants "to unshackle their balls," to save blacks from a civilizing process that will "make faggots of them" in a moral and political sense, that will "refine and educate" the blackness and outrage right out of them. He lauds the rising spirit of fighting back that he discerns in the new generation, "The [young] brothers gave a good account of themselves" during the Day of Outrage. As he says, "My ancestors weren't immigrants: I've inherited a chip on my shoulder."

The return of Sonny Carson to public life marks a larger revival during the Koch years of a black radicalism whose genealogy goes back to 1960s street-corner nationalism. It retains not only the demands for black power but also its more demonic features, albeit in modulated form: the conviction of white malevolence, the defiant braggadocio and cult of "badness," predictions of racial apocalypse, accusations of "traitor" and "Negro," and the agenda of separatism. It is a retrograde force, full of nihilistic contradictions. Professing love of African people, it bullies and harms them. It speaks of empowerment but harps on the status of blacks as hapless victims and denies them any responsibility for ghetto incivility. Among blacks and whites alike, it calls forth the racism that it constantly demonizes.

This politics is hardly representative of black opinion and claims no mass base; nor is it confined to a few protesters on Church Avenue. It exists in Farrakhan's screeds, in the music of Public Enemy and other political rappers, and in the cult of melanin superiority. It pours out over the airwaves of black talk radio: in anti-Semitic resentment, in preachments "to know who the enemy is," in the widespread belief that whites raped the Central Park jogger, in cavalier statements that Attorney General Robert Abrams is a "well-known enemy of African People," in the conviction that "we're here in apartheid now."

Most vividly, it pervades the antics of media mesmerists like the Rev. Al Sharpton — who inflamed racial paranoia and Tawana Brawley's suffering with the hoax that white men had raped her — and activist lawyers C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox. At the Slave Theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, after Dinkins called for racial healing, Mason pronounced him "a Negro bastard," "Judas." and a "lover of white people." "He ain't got no Africanism in him at all." To enthusiastic applause, Mason opined that "he's got too many yarmulkes on his head." In an emotive session on WLIB, Sharpton called for a convocation of "Africans only, that want justice only…. These whites must learn in this town that they going to pay when they put their hands on African people." Maddox emphasizes, "We are at war…. We must get out into the streets and we must shake these people upside down. We must continue to invade Bensonhurst time and time and time again."

To declaim against this cathartic form of black politics, as Koch's hectoring made clear, affords certain cathartic pleasures of its own. But it ignores the realities that nourish the frenzy; the calamity of the underclass, federal indifference to the black plight, a string of killings of black people by police and white ethnic mobs. In response, many offer nonsense. As if New York now is the same as Selma in 1965, Do The Right Thing gave the alternatives of nonviolence and striking back; neither addresses the trials of broken families, crack and crime, poverty. Similarly, it saddens that Yusuf Hawkins's father invited Farrakhan to speak at Yusuf's funeral, even as one sympathizes with his skepticism about white benevolence. How can you explain to Diane Hawkins, Yusuf's mother, the code of silence that permits Keith Mondello's sidekicks, who suffer from "Bensonhurst amnesia," to receive local adulation as "stand-up guys," or the smiles of their supporters chanting, "Do the White Thing" and "Yusuf, useless, Yusuf, useless"?

No amount of understanding can diminish the need to confront this volatile strain in black political life. Here the silence of black leaders has been troublesome. Whether out of fear of being branded a traitor or racial loyalty that keeps spats "in the family," they have not vigorously countered racial delusion. Black leaders should act against it, not to achieve peace at the expense of justice, but because a politics of retributive despair will bring neither.

Perhaps, as Dinkins suggested, a shouting match with Sharpton and his ilk inflates their importance and maintains the media circus on which they feed. Still, there is a midpoint between diffidence and stridency, and Dinkins has a rare opportunity to define it. A black man who understands the pain of his people, he is a dignified practitioner of racial coalition. His vision of the gorgeous mosaic affirms the mutual respect that is a requisite of the good society. His belated healing speech made clear that he is not a mayor for blacks but the mayor of the entire city. And he reassured Bensonhurst in a way Koch never reassured black New York. "All of Bensonhurst did not commit this crime; rather, a few people committed this crime in Bensonhurst." One should not dismiss the significance of such Family-of-Man pieties. Against the backdrop of white backlash, they provide the rhetorical condition for liberal renewal. Within the context of black politics, they courageously instruct in the civic culture needed to further black liberation.

The passions of the boycott and Bensonhurst will likely subside, but blacks will experience other disappointments as Dinkins slashes the budget deficit and protects the ratings of the city's bonds. Some will be dismayed that having one of their own as mayor does not make an immediate difference in their lives. These dashed expectations may generate hungers that the equivocations of governing will not satisfy. Demagogues will seek to minister to those afflictions. At that moment, Dinkins again will have the opportunity, if only he will seize it, to speak out for a democratic politics. 

This article originally ran in the July 2nd, 1990, issue of the magazine.