OAKLAND, Calif. — They weren’t your ordinary thugs.
Dressed in bow ties and dark suits, nearly a dozen men carrying metal pipes entered a corner store, shattered refrigerator cases and smashed bottles of liquor, wine and beer, terrifying the clerk but stealing nothing.
The just wanted to leave a message: Stop selling alcohol to fellow Muslims.
In urban America, friction between poor residents and immigrant store owners is nothing new. Nor are complaints that inner-city neighborhoods are glutted with markets that sell alcohol and contribute to violent crime, vagrancy and other social ills.
But the recent attack at San Pablo Liquor — and an identical vandalism spree at another West Oakland store later that evening, along with an arson fire there and the kidnapping of the owner a few days later — have injected religion into the debate.
The two episodes highlighted tensions — and different interpretations of the Quran — between black Muslims in this struggling, crime-ridden city of 400,000 and Middle Eastern shop owners, many of them also Muslims.
Six men connected to a bakery founded by a prominent black Muslim family have been arrested in the Nov. 23 attacks, which were caught on store security cameras. In both instances, the vandals asked store clerks why they were selling alcohol when it was against the Muslim faith.
One of the men arrested on charges that included hate crimes and vandalism was 19-year-old Yusuf Bey IV. His father, Yusuf Bey, a black Muslim leader who died in 2003, founded Your Black Muslim Bakery, which sells Malcolm X books along with baked goods.
The elder Bey was accused of raping young women between 1976 and 1995. The accusations were later dropped. But his organization has been lauded for providing jobs and guidance to young black men from poor communities.
The younger Bey was arrested after police identified him as one of the men in the video. The younger Bey’s attorney, Lorna Brown, suggested Bey was a victim of mistaken identity. But she also said the vandalism has prompted discussions throughout the black community.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the number of these stores in low-income communities is not good for people,” she said.
San Pablo market owner Abdul Saleh, who has kept his store open following the attacks, said his decision to sell alcohol is “between me and God.”
“We’re just coming here to make a living like anyone else,” he said.
Division among Muslim community
While black and Middle Eastern Muslims may pray at the same mosques on weekends, their worlds do not tend to overlap beyond that, said Hatem Bazian, professor of Near East and ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
The Middle Eastern store owners tend to live in the suburbs, the black Muslims in the cities, Bazian said. The immigrant shopkeepers also interpret Islam to allow the sale of alcohol.
In the wake of the attacks, community leaders have targeted the glut of corner markets selling fortified wine, malt liquor and cheap alcohol as one of the most pressing problems in Oakland, where roughly 16 percent of families live below the poverty line.
The City Council president and the city attorney vowed to crack down on nuisance liquor stores, and recently forced a store to agree to a plan to curb drug activity on the property. Also, at a recent community meeting, Christians and Muslims pledged to work together to bring better businesses to their neighborhoods.
West Oakland, a predominantly black and poor section of the city where the vandalism took place, has 69 stores selling alcohol, 28 above the maximum number acceptable under a state standard that prescribes no more than one store for every 2,500 residents, according to anti-poverty group Urban Strategies Council.
Steve Ernst, deputy chief of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, could not immediately confirm those numbers.
But he said many of the stores were opened before the regulation was put in place more than a decade ago. And the standard can be waived if a license applicant passes muster with the state and city and there are no protests from the community.
“If there is a location that is a blight on the community, we want to work with the police and the community to address the situation,” Ernst said. That can include revoking a store’s liquor license.
‘The easiest targets’
Jamillah Smith, 33, lives in a West Oakland neighborhood close to several liquor stores and corner markets. She said that the stores are hubs for drug dealing and violence and that drunks often urinate on the walls of the markets.
Smith said she has been afraid to let her children, ages 10, 12 and 14, walk near the shops ever since a man was shot in front of a market. But she does not own a car and occasionally buys essentials at the stores.
“If I had known it was like this I would have never moved over here,” she said, adding that the markets should sell more fresh foods.
Mohamed Saleh Mohamed, president of the Yemeni American Grocers Association, which represents 250 to 300 Oakland merchants, said that before Middle Eastern immigrants started buying corner stores in the early 1980s, they offered nothing but alcohol. The merchants expanded and began to sell more produce and other food, he said.
“We’re the easiest targets for community blame,” he said.
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