‘Lower Priority’

08.20.14

Ferguson's Other Race Problem: Riots Damaged Asian-Owned Stores

Asian-American-owned businesses in the St. Louis suburb are a mess after days of looting in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing. And one lawyer says the authorities let it happen.

It happened during the L.A. riots, when anger over the police beating of Rodney King spilled into Koreatown. It happened fictionally in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, when an Asian-American business owner was forced to defend his store from rioters.

And it’s happening again in Ferguson: Looted Asian-American businesses have become collateral damage.

Asian-Americans own a number of the stores lining West Florissant Avenue, where more than 20 businesses have suffered damage in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing. At least five of these stores are Asian-American-owned, according to local sources and business records. Just 0.5 percent of Ferguson is of Asian descent, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

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Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The Ferguson Market, where the teenage Brown allegedly grabbed a handful of cigars before his deadly encounter with police, is owned by the Patels, an Asian-American family. Looters have targeted the store twice. On the same block, Northland Chop Suey, a Chinese restaurant, has been looted at least two times. A second market, a beauty shop, and a cellphone store within walking distance also have been damaged; all are owned by Asian-Americans.

Jay Kanzler, the Patels’ lawyer, told The Daily Beast he believed that law enforcement authorities allowed the looting of Ferguson Market on Friday in part because it is a minority-owned small business.

“One could [ask] that if this had been a Walmart, a Starbucks…would they have done more to make sure this didn’t happen?…I believe that absolutely factored into the equation,” said Kanzler, who said 80 percent of his clients are first-generation small-business owners. “Their rights may have been placed on a lower priority for the people in charge of protecting them.”

Local Asian-American business owners, however, say they don’t think looters targeted them because of their race. Even as the protests continue, many of the owners are already back in their stores, rebuilding and serving Ferguson residents.

"[Looters] came in here two times, Sunday night and Friday night,” Chinese restaurant owner Boon Jang told The Daily Beast, before adding: “I’ve got to go, I have a customer here.”

In times of racial tension, Asian-Americans have tended to be left out of the conversation between white and black America, reflecting the prevailing sense during more peaceful times that they don’t quite belong in either camp.

That’s the result of “the role of Asians when it comes to race tensions between white and black,” said Johnny Wang, president of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of St. Louis. “The common complaint is that we just stay on the sidelines and don’t say anything.”

A precursor to the 1992 L.A. riots was the 1991 killing of teenager Latasha Harlins, an African-American teenager shot by a Korean-American storekeeper who thought she was trying to steal juice. The incident left lingering bitterness among some in the local African-American community that contributed in part to the Koreatown violence a year later.

“Hopefully it doesn’t devolve into what happened in the L.A. riots,” Wang said. “Because if that happens, we’re all getting out of Dodge.”

There is no similar tension in Ferguson, locals say—in fact, some 40 residents of the suburb formed a picket line at Ferguson Market last Friday in an unsuccessful attempt to protect it from looting, and many have offered to help clean up in the aftermath of the violence.

“We support this community and this community supports us,” said Priyanka Patel, daughter of the Ferguson Market owners. “We love Ferguson and are proud to be business members of this community.”

On Wednesday morning, local Asian-American civic and business leaders released a statement urging unity in the aftermath of Brown’s death and calm after nights of violence.

“It is so sad and disheartening to see this level of violence expressed toward the business owners, who have always supported this community in good times and bad,” said Anil Gopal, president of the St. Louis Indian Business Association. “Many minority businesses located here and helped revitalize this community. We hope and pray that the violent actions of a few outsiders do not erode any progress Ferguson and its people have been experiencing."

Among Asian-American business owners in Ferguson, and other business owners in the St. Louis suburb, there is a deep concern over whether insurance will cover the damages from the looting. Many insurance contracts expressly consider civil unrest a reason not to pay out policies.

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“It’s a fear over whether the insurance cover the damage, and repeated damage,” said Kathleen Osborn, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Business Council, referring to the small businesses in Ferguson her group is trying to assist. “Some of them are so small they don’t have the expertise to fill out the insurance forms.”

Added Kanzler, who represents the Patels and another minority-owned small business that was looted, “Oftentimes, small-business policies contain that clause...it should be a concern.”

For the time being, Asian-American business owners are determined to get back on their feet, to continue providing services in Ferguson—unless the unrest worsens and they feel targeted.

“Hopefully it doesn’t devolve into what happened in the L.A. riots,” Wang said. “Because if that happens, we’re all getting out of Dodge.”