Miami's Own Middle East Melee

Forget Israel and Palestine. Inner-city blacks are up in arms about Arab-owned convenience stores in their midst.

It was supposed to be a debate about increasing police presence in black neighborhoods. But when Adora Obi Nweze stood up in a flowing orange dashiki at the Joseph Caleb Center May 28, it was as if a divining rod suddenly jerked the meeting toward a reservoir of discontent.

"We have got to stop buying from those Arab-owned stores," declared Nweze, president of the Dade branch of the NAACP. Morris Johnson, a Miami-Dade Community College history professor, slapped a table in agreement: "The Arab issue is causing paralysis in our community." State Rep. James Bush, his outfit of blue suit, white shirt, and tie a staid anomaly amid the African prints, called for "a dialogue with the Arabs on their stores."

Resentment toward dozens of convenience stores owned by Middle Easterners in Overtown and Liberty City has simmered for decades in the county. Some believe that the shops inflate prices and drain money from the community, and that workers disrespect customers. Others say the stores promote drug use and gun sales. This discontent is fueled by frustration. Some blacks believe they should own the stores, that they are forever on the outside of the economic window looking in.

Their indignation came to the fore last week when a judge set an August trial date for a two-year-old murder case. Prosecutors claim that when Khaled Abu Hamdeh, a Palestinian who owned Scott's Market at NW 75th Street and Twentieth Avenue, shot 27-year-old security guard Charles Nelson eight times on June 30, 1996, it was murder. Hamdeh, now 25, contends he fired in self-defense after the 6'4" ex-convict lunged at him with a bottle and threatened to burn down the store.

After the shooting, police questioned Hamdeh, then released him, spurring community outrage. Three days later police charged Hamdeh with second-degree murder. But it was too late to placate some residents of the nearby James E. Scott projects who ransacked the store, smashing windows and looting the shelves. After police arrested twenty people, a few community leaders called for peace. Others pleaded for support of black-owned rather than Arab-owned stores. Community activist Leroy Jones even organized "buy-outs" -- crowds purchased the entire inventory of several black-owned stores in a show of support.

A week ago Jones helped organize a rally of about twenty people across the street from the market where Nelson was killed, which reopened recently under a new owner, Mahmoud Samih, a 26-year-old Jordanian. Rally organizers hoped to draw attention to the upcoming trial. They also wanted to urge blacks to avoid Arab stores. Today Nwezi and Jones stop just short of using the word boycott, but the difference may be no more than semantics.

"We want people to patronize black businesses. We want to replace the owners of these stores with black owners," says Jones, executive director of Neighbors and Neighbors Association. "We allow everybody in the world to come into our community and make money off us. It's got to stop." Jones says he doesn't intend this to be a racial issue. But he maintains that problem stores are generally owned by Middle Easterners.

Inner-city blacks' anger at nonblack store owners has resonated across the country for decades, points out University of Miami sociologist George Wilson. "It could be Koreans in L.A. or Jews 30 years ago," he says. "These neighborhoods are like prisons, with low economic opportunity. Lots of young people are looking around and seeing goods sold and handled by outsiders. It's easy to feel taken advantage of. So there's some scapegoating that goes on."

Akhtar Hussain, a Pakistani lawyer who is co-counsel on Hamdeh's defense team, terms the racial aspect of his client's case "absurd." In the Middle East, he says, skin color is less of an issue than it is in this country. "They don't see color," he says. "They're just in business."

Samih, Scott's Market's new owner, asks his black neighbors for tolerance: "We do give them respect. I understand there were problems here, but not with me. We are not all the same." Samih says he has helped the community by donating soft drinks to a nearby elementary school, $200 to the Police Athletic League, and $200 to a local church. "Look, this place was closed for two years. Why didn't a black person buy it and open a store?"

As preparations are made for Hamdeh's trial, another incident has prompted community concern. On May 23 an Arab worker at Martin's Market, on NW Eighteenth Avenue and 63rd Street, shot a sixteen-year-old black boy in the hand and leg. Police, who won't disclose the worker's name, report that the teenager was injured after robbing the store with a machine gun. He was treated and released for minor injuries and is now in custody on charges of armed robbery and burglary. To Arab store owners, the incident highlights the danger of their jobs. The NAACP's Nweze says the shooting cemented her resolve to address the "problem."

Outside Martin's Market recently, John Miller, a 35-year-old black man standing under a twisted banyan tree, summed up the dilemma: "Arabs come to the country and have many resources because they pool together. I don't know what our problems are, why we can't come together. But we surely have to do something.

 
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