Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Most would agree that it's duplicitous to have Arabic calligraphy illustrating the words of the Qur'an hanging on the walls of a liquor store. This is no exaggeration. This is happening across America right under your nose. And this, dear readers, blurs the line between our way of life and their way of business.
In the midst of the Black and Brown neighborhoods across America, you find liquor stores posted on residential corners every few blocks or so. We call them convenience marts. In the land of milk and honey, these businesses are perfectly lawful because no legal infringement forbids the exchange of cash for alcoholic substances. Not since the days of bootlegging liquor during our country's prohibition days, at least. From 1920 to 1933 the making, selling and transporting of alcohol was punishable by law until Franklin Roosevelt changed the game by signing an amendment.
Juxtaposed with businesses like this are churches that safely house the many denominations of Christianity. By equal comparison there are reachable markets selling intoxicants and vices of all sorts like pornography and cigarettes. Provided, these small business merchants sell many other items like household staples, beverages, junk food, lottery tickets and a myriad of miscellaneous product. The residents hurriedly dash to these stores when visiting a supermarket isn't convenient or if they need a quick supply of this or that. Outside the entrance, other activities like dice games and dope dealings take place.
Store owners make a decent living, which speaks to the perpetuated allure of the American dream. However enticing this may seem, making a decent living is often earned at the expense of vulnerable, downtrodden and sometimes chemically dependent locals. Whether the addiction is nicotine or alcohol, consumption of these injurious products only contribute to a greater pathology and sadly, one whose cause has long been legalized.
Where consumer accountability is considered, accessibility must be too.
If there were a rehabilitation center within the same proximity of these liquor stores, perhaps my tension would cease to exist. And the framework for which I've built this argument would easily collapse. But that's not the case in disadvantaged areas where people survive in the most compactly populated places.
The demographics in these neighborhoods are chiefly African American, working class Whites and Latinos that were born here or immigrated. Seldom are adults college graduates or hold a job that can reap a family wage which necessitates the taking of two jobs, government assistance or other means of income. Urban planning and economic development are only regarded when old homes are demolished to make way for new townhouses and condos.
Similarly, schools have the lowest standardized test scores while classrooms have the highest student to teacher ratios. Government funding is munificently given to school districts whose students score the peak ranking in their assessments at year's end. It doesn't take a genius (or a college grad) to calculate what that means for inner city kids who would be provided the opportunity to thrive academically if our government helped schools without rigid stipulations.
And if it's not Oakland or Richmond, it's Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago or a neighborhood like Watts in Southern California. It's an issue that deserves national attention, however, it is also an issue disregarded by government because answerability is tossed back and forth between merchants and lawmakers.
Three years ago while most Bay Area residents were carving turkeys and eating sweet potato pie, a wave of vandalism, arson and then kidnapping struck the community liquor stores by mysterious men, cloaked like Nation of Islam followers. The public was later notified that stores were set ablaze by the late Yusef Bey's disciples who cleared shelves of alcoholic beverages, and left the floors covered in liquid poison and shattered glass. The owners were left with a clear message- it is moral hypocrisy to sell alcohol in these neighborhoods, to another browbeaten group of people. The news was immediately sensationalized and nightly broadcasts kept playing footage taken from surveillance cameras.
The Bey family debacle has been forever colored with scandal- sexual abuse, alleged kidnappings, murder and torture in their twisted understanding of justice. It was whispered that Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey was murdered by adherents to this cult-like following.
This moment in time presented a dilemma for Muslims on both sides; nobody appreciates the presence of Arab owned liquor stores especially when other members of Islamic centers work hard to erect a better example. Muslims largely felt as though the collective group of merchants, the Yemeni Grocers Association amounting to 300 members, were unapproachable. In fact, they were labeled "mafia" when the subject was brought up at a masjid in East Oakland years before the wave of crime washed upon our shores. Secondly, Muslims objected to and seldom affiliated with the Bey family for the same reasons. Although they didn't attend our Islamic Center, there was a brawny presence of this family and their businesses throughout Oakland.
Yet, somehow and in some way, we were still wedged in the pandemonium. Media outlets would ask leaders for comments and only a handful of Muslims were prepared to really deal with backlash and public relations. With every passing day, the relations among African American Muslims (and non Muslims) became strained with the Arab community.
Most would agree that it's duplicitous to have Arabic calligraphy illustrating the words of the Qur'an hanging on the walls of a liquor store. It was further demoralizing to see the hijabi wives of these merchants standing behind the counter, ringing up the largest bottles of cognac, pricing condoms, men's magazines, bacon and so on. This is no exaggeration. This is happening across America right under your nose.
And this, dear readers, blurs the line between our way of life and their way of business.
Although named Yemeni Grocers Association, a percentage of these Arabs are Palestinian. They are refugees from a land in which displacement, dispossession, unemployment and poverty are the primary reasons for flight. Is it fair then, that in this great escape, they resettle in neighborhoods afflicted with the same state of affairs? Is it fair that our neighborhoods are being gentrified as quickly as their homeland is, making way for European immigrants in the Jewish religion?
No, it is not fair but evenhandedness isn't always considered in my America, a land for capital gain. Truthfully we know that where one gains success, another may be exploited.
Immediately following the vandalism and arson, Muslims made sincere attempts at being proactive by handing out leaflets, organizing meetings and holding press conferences. In addition to diplomatic measures, one group located in East Oakland led a three mile march up Macarthur, down 98th avenue, up East 14th and finally stomped the remaining blocks of 82nd back to their starting point. During the course of this march, an annual activity every Friday following Thanksgiving, they passed several liquor stores whose owners looked mortified. Some of them even called Oakland Police Department in fear they would suffer another blow. Those in procession kept walking, some with strollers and little ones, or handed the merchants inspirational writings about Islam, the religion of their homeland.
But my applause ended when the efforts of these groups did too. Once again, we found ourselves suspended in the hype of sensationalism with no unyielding plan for the next day, month or year to come.
The sales of Islamically-illicit substances grows and finances not just families and those back home, but this cash may also finance the masjid depending on where you attend. In my current city, the masjid was taken from the hands of African American leadership and "given" to local merchants.
This should be a point of contention if you live in a neighborhood like mine.
It's ironic that Muslims are more likely to boycott Starbucks than approach leadership of these masajid and argue a plea. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to state my case against this hypocrisy. Starbucks is said to donate to the state of Israel and Muslims have joined Palestinian activist groups in a divestment campaign reminiscent of ones carried out during the South African Apartheid against companies like Coca-Cola.
And if it's not Starbucks, it's Wal-Mart as a trendy target of consumer consciousness.
But this situation is deeper than the pockets of both corporations. While we are willing to join the ranks in these campaigns, no less honorable than those of a political struggle, we overlook that race relations and fair play aren't even guaranteed with those we stand next to in this movement.
If we're willing to give up a caramel macchiato at a cafe said to be associated with Palestinian repression, are the Palestinian store owners willing to stop selling their beverages too? To what extent is the real sacrifice in these matters?
Let's be real- the international cause is indeed noble but don't let that engross you from what's happening in your own backyards. Racism is an institutional condition mirrored by the ugliness of social conditioning, both here and abroad. My neighborhoods are occupied by several forces- cops, criminals and those who peddle dope both legal and illegal. We are in a state of occupation too.
We must continue to initiate constructive dialogue about the destructive forces in our communities, even if these forces are coming from our brothers and sisters in faith.
Solidarity must be reciprocated in practice, not merely in theory.
Yahsmin M. B. Bobo is a contributing writer for Illume magazine.