Tuesday, July 31, 2018

From Protest to Progress. Where will the BP Gas Mart Protest Lead?

Photo by Richard Reilly
      As protest go, no one can really predict what incident will kick off a series of demonstrations or what the end results may be. This thought occurred to me last week when I attended a protest at the BP Gas Mart at the intersections of Goodfellow and Delmar.

Earlier that day, two BP employees, Ahmed Qandeel, 19, and Jehad Motan, 32, were taken into custody and charged with assault. A bystander recorded the two men kicking a female customer. The video shows the workers threatening the woman:

“I’m going to put my feet in your a-s!” one shouts, just moments before kicking the woman to the ground. “You gotta go,” he continued, “You gotta go!”

Photo by Richard Reilly

The patron, Kelli Adams said the incident ensued after she tried to purchase lottery tickets at the store and was turned away. The fact that Ms. Adams may have had drug or mental health issues was a side note to people who showed up to speak for her humanity. Regardless of the details, the video went viral and drew dozens of people to the business to collectively voice their disapproval of the employees’ actions.

Assault victim, Kelli Adams 

         The genesis of the outrage stemmed from two grown men assaulting a woman. But the comments I heard ranged from how Middle-Easterners, who own a plethora of gas stations in black neighborhoods, disrespect their customers to the lack of opportunity to own and operate our own businesses. 
As I listened and talked to people at the station, I wondered where this might all lead? 

State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., who attended one of the protests told reporters: “We saw a video where a young lady got kicked by the store owner,” Franks said. “The [workers] walked away, walked back up, and kicked her. That ain’t happening, so folks are talking about taking their community back.”

Photo by Richard Reilly
State Rep. Bruce Franks: 
"...folks are talking about taking their community back.”

What does “take our community back” really mean? And how can this incident amplify and/or move that message forward? Is it possible to parlay an economic negative into a long-term positive without alienating those who don’t live in but live off the black dollars?

In St. Louis, we have a long, proud history of mass resistance that predates the “Black Lives Matters” movement in 2014 after the police shooting of Mike Brown. Other than the fact that St. Louis created a template for mass resistance to police shootings, the end results of that tragedy are still in the making. Still, in reflection, tangible outcomes from local demonstrations are revealed.

In the summer of 1930, a black physician, Dr. Bernice A. Yancey, was electrocuted while using a defective X-ray machine at the horrendous, unsanitary City Hospital No. 2. That incident served as a rallying cry to pressure city leaders to address the health needs of its black residents. The protests eventually led to the building of a new, $3-million-dollar, state-of-the-art, 728-bed black medical facility, Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1937.

Activists in 1963 launched daily protests aimed at Jefferson Bank & Trust Company’s discriminatory hiring practices. This led to better jobs for blacks and ushered in a new era of black political leadership that including Con. William L. Clay and Missouri legislators, Raymond Howard and Louis Ford.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes) led by Percy Green, launched sometimes aggressive protests to force major, local employers such as McDonnell Aircraft Company, Southwestern Bell, Laclede Gas and Union Electric to hire African Americans workers for higher-wage jobs. The fact that I was hired at Laclede Gas in 1977 was a direct result of ACTION’s efforts to persuade the company to hire minorities for 40 percent of its new job openings at the time.

If St. Louis history is any indication, the BP situation can have the potential to address larger issues in our region.

“For years, we’ve talked about economic injustice in our own community,” the Rev. Darryl Gray told me. “We’ve talked about the lack of black businesses and we continue to talk about black unemployment. But we don’t talk about is our own ability to employ our own.”

Photo by Richard Rielly
Rev. Darryl Gray: “We’ve talked about the lack of black businesses and we continue to talk about black unemployment. But we don’t talk about is our own ability to employ our own.”

Gray’s comments about economic injustice was echoed by many in the crowd. Their words, however, were underscored with direct action. They used their cars to block access to the gas pumps. A few protesters positioned themselves at the front doors to dissuade any potential customers from making purchases. They made an economic statement, but Gray calls for a larger conversation:

“Ninety-nine percent of this businesses’ money comes from black patrons. So, we’re saying, ‘we’re going to withdraw our enthusiasm, our finances from this business today and force a conversation’ and not just between these business owners but us and politicians and us and the community.”

I was struck by the “us” part of Gray’s assertion. As he said earlier, we’ve been talking about “economic injustice” in the black community for years. What will it take to move “us” from talk to action? Again, I wonder if effective sustainable economic can change come out of the BP conflict.

There was a Muslim gentleman, who served as a liaison of sorts at the demonstration. I later learned his name. Faizan Syed serves on the Council of Islamic Religion and is a founding member of the StLouis Metropolitan Council of Imams. Among heated questions and accusations, Syed calmly explained why he was trying to get the BP owners to come out and make a public apology, which they eventually did.

Representatives of the BP gas mart make public apology
Photo by Richard Reilly

“Their livelihood comes from all of you. You’re their customers. You’re the people who live in this neighborhood.” Syed explained adding, “Unfortunately, the owners don’t build relationships with the community. Some look at the community with suspension and that’s a cultural thing that needs to change.

“If that can come out of this situation…if the other gas station owners can see what happened here, if they can train themselves and their employees…they’ve never learned how to build community relationships.” 

Faizan Syed, photo by Bill Monroe
 “Their livelihood comes from all of you. You’re their customers. You’re the people who live in this neighborhood.” - Faizan Syed

Somewhere in between Rev. Gray’s comments about building black businesses and Syed’s concerns, I believe, there is the starting point for fruitful dialogue. The demonstrations have ended for the most part, and it seems it’s business as usual at the BP gas mart.  It would be a shame if the window of dialogue has closed without further discussion and action.

I believe, we must cautiously approach the topic of immigrants or so called “foreigners” doing business in black communities. In today’s highly toxic, xenophobic political environment, this issue can be easily exploited to drive a deeper wedge between blacks and Muslims.  

Photo by Richard Reilly 

America has proven fertile ground for immigrant entrepreneurism. Unlike blacks, immigrants have been able to transplant their cultural values and attributes into successful enterprises. They work together, raise their own seed money and employ a culture-based system of supportive, collective economics. Immigrants may have a rough go at it, but they have not been hampered by centuries of legalized cultural annihilation, dissimilation or laws that prohibited economic opportunity based on skin color, like African Americans.

German, Jewish, Korean and, now, Arab-Americans have always found opportunities in black communities, including St. Louis. They provide services many white business owners pass up. Foreign-owned gas stations in the region have perfected the art of catering to their customer’s wants and needs. In areas where grocery stores are scarce, gas stations and convenience stores provide the food, cell phone services, clothing and gold-plated bling blacks seem to desire.

There is an opportunity to build off the highly publicized incident involving Ms. Adams and the store’s employees. If black leaders are serious about creating black enterprises in their own communities, Muslim business owners can be an asset by sharing knowledge and resources aimed at creating cross-cultural economic alliances in long-ignored neighborhoods.

A couple years ago, I had a conversation with a Muslim entrepreneur who owns several gas stations in Missouri and Illinois. He welcomed the idea of selling our sweet potato cookies at his stores and, when we’re ready, I plan to revisit that conversation. What may come if we extrapolated that idea to include products-food, clothing, jewelry, etc.-made by black entrepreneurs? What’s the possibility of partnering with or supporting qualified black entrepreneurs and helping them open gas stations or other types of businesses in black neighborhoods?

It is my hope that the protests do not wind up building a bigger wedge between Muslims and the black community. I have written often about the inherent business, housing and land-ownership opportunities in economically-depressed neighborhoods in St. Louis. Muslims, like so many immigrants before them, have found gold in areas deemed worthless by prestigious developers and vision-less politicians. I for one, am looking for another historic negative transformed into a collective positive.  

Hopefully, the moment hasn’t been lost. Harkening back to the words of Rev. Gray, I’m looking forward to that “forced” conversation where Muslim business owners, politicians and “us” go from simple protest to holistic, healing all inclusive progress.