George Floyd, an unarmed Black man was strangled to death by police after reportedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at Cup Foods, a convenience store and restaurant in Minneapolis. Apparently one of the staff there called the police. I was disappointed at this but I’m willing to concede that calling the police for a counterfeit bill is not something everyone expects to end tragically. It must be stated unequivocally that Derek Chauvin and the three officers who silently watched him are the only guilty parties in Floyd’s killing. What I offer here involves improving the relationship between immigrant Muslim store owners and the predominantly Black communities they often serve. However, I don’t implicate Cup Foods in Floyd’s death nor am I suggesting that it mistreats its community. Quite the reverse, when a store that has honorably served a majority Black community for 31 years calls the police for what strikes me, along with many others, as a minor infraction, I’m concerned that we don’t know each other well enough. In an interview with CNN, the owner of Cup Foods, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh expressed heartfelt condolences for the family of George Floyd and corroborated reports of police misconduct. In the 4-minute segment, Don Lemon, the show’s host, never challenges the owner about the decision to alert the authorities. I understand this omission. The risk of appearing to suggest a causal relationship between a random call to the police and a brutal execution carried-out by the responding officer was too great. Nonetheless, within Muslim communities this particular configuration is not so random: Muslim-owned businesses, black communities, and law enforcement are three elements of a story we’ve seen many times.
Police-instigated violence against Black people has a long and notorious history. Those looking for thoroughgoing and circumspect treatments of the subject will find for example, Police Violence against Afro-descendants in the United States, a 2018 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The conversation in the public domain has tended to focus on two issues: (1) The misconduct of individual police officers. (2) The systemic anti-Black racism which associates criminal intent, aggression, and higher thresholds of pain with Black people. However, the fact that the murders of Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and most recently George Floyd all involved minority-owned businesses (some of which were owned and operated by Muslims) in predominantly Black communities is scarcely analyzed as a relevant factor in their deaths.
Historically, desegregation and the subsequent outmigration of middle-income Black families, intentional disinvestment on behalf of banks and corporations, and bad municipal planning (highways, railroads, garbage dumps etc.) disrupted albeit poor but more economically self-contained Black communities and created enclaves which were commercially vacuous. That vacuum was filled by proprietors of Jewish, Arab, Korean, Chinese, Polish, and other backgrounds. There is little point in discussing the legitimacy of these establishments. They exist and have every legal right to operate. In fact, those who view them as singularly parasitic might fail to appreciate how little interest anyone else has shown in investing in these communities. How these businesses operate, on the other hand, is of deep concern. When we see video footage of a patron stealing a box of cigars from a corner store and the authorities being alerted—which resulted in Mike Brown’s tragic murder—that is not an isolated incident. It’s an expression of long standing mutual estrangement. In such instances both the business owner and the customer should be viewed as byproducts of a culture of alienation. Karl Marx described this kind of alienation as the consequence of living in a society so stratified that the members of one class can scarcely understand, let alone empathize, with those of another. In our context, the customer, who is a member of the local community, doesn’t know that the store owner is operating on razor thin margins and just barely staving off closure. He doesn’t know that the owner has relatives back home—in a similarly economically depressed community from which he migrated--to whom he sends money every month. He’s just “a foreigner,” one of those people who either intrusively watch us when we enter their stores or assume an unsolicited, patronizing air of informality (“What’s good, my G?”). And the owner views the community with similar disinterest. For starters, he observes his customers behind a three inch-thick bulletproof glass. The perceived threat of gun violence at these retail locations may warrant such security measures. But they come at a great cost. For every would-be armed robber whose plans are thwarted by such preparations, countless normal patrons are forced to confront the blatant invisible message written on the glass: “I am afraid of you. Beyond your money, I want as little to do with you as possible.” Fear and distance breed contempt. From a place of contempt, it’s very easy to ignore the potentially deadly consequences of involving law enforcement to resolve insignificant conflicts with Black customers.
The most obvious way to address this imbalance is re-invigorating a culture of Black entrepreneurship. However, when non-Black Muslim vendors are assessing what it means to run businesses in the Black community, the following Qur’anic verses are illuminating. In verses about integrity and impartiality in trade, the Qur’an highlights both the virtue and vice of the Medinese Jewish community. They were a minority community of merchants living among the Arabs of Medina
There are some among the People of the Book who, if entrusted with a stack of gold, will readily return it. Yet there are others who, if entrusted with a single coin, will not repay it unless you constantly demand it. This is because they say, “We are not accountable for ˹exploiting˺ these ignorant people’.” And ˹so˺ they attribute lies to Allah knowingly. (75) But yes, whoever fulfills their commitment and fears Allah. then indeed, Allah loves those who fear Him. (76) [3:75-76]
Sweeping generalizations are always avoided in the Qur’an: Some members of the Jewish community maintained the highest standard of integrity and fairness—and they were acknowledged. On the other hand, the arrogance of those who pursued their interests through exploitation is also highlighted. Their condescending attitude is expressed in the statement, “We are not accountable for exploiting these ignorant people.” God denounces them as liars. Simply put, there is no way to serve a community you don’t respect. All Muslim entrepreneurs and small business owners should take a keen interest in these verses but especially those that serve structurally disadvantaged communities. “These ignorant people…” the statement is disgusting; however, even more disgusting is the basis of disassociation upon which the statement proceeds. The exploitation is essentially justified because it’s being perpetrated against “these people,” i.e. people with whom one is not associated.
I live in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side, and there are many Muslim-owned businesses in my community. Some are excellent, some are mediocre, but more are bad. In my experience, the businesses that enjoy the most success, security, and longevity are those with the deepest roots in the community. They do simple things such as greeting people respectfully and knowing the names and preferences of regular customers. And they make more important contributions such as hiring local community members to jobs which pay a living-wage and stocking the products of local vendors when possible. In light of the tragic slaying of George Floyd, perhaps the most important thing excellent business owners do is take an active interest in the communities they serve. Cup Foods has been in the predominantly Black community of South Minneapolis for 31 years. That’s an impressive history and it’s safe to assume a great deal of familiarity and affection between the owning Abumayyaleh family and the community. It’s disappointing then, to learn that the management of Cup Foods didn’t have more knowledge of how its community is organized. No one there knew anyone who would’ve been willing to intervene if, in fact, some fraud had taken place? Among people in community with each other the redress of wrong always looks more restorative than punitive. It’s perplexing to think there wouldn’t be more awareness of the mortal risk Black people assume when interacting with law enforcement. Creativity is the essential component of empathy. How creatively can each of us think in order to see ourselves and our struggles in other people? For Muslims who often represent surveilled, occupied, politically oppressed, diasporic communities, it shouldn’t require much effort to connect with the history and present of Blackamericans.