Strained relations

Last week the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, president of the Michigan Chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, reportedly asked that folks not patronize Arab-owned gas stations in the Detroit area for a period of 30 days as part of the B-Gas Campaign. The purpose of this campaign is to protest several recent incidents where Arab gas station owners mistreated black patrons and to patronize black-owned gas stations instead.

If this protest works as planned, the local Arabic community will apparently be put on notice that black folks are sick and tired of being mistreated by Arab gas station owners and we’re not going to take it anymore. For at least 30 days, we’re going to keep our black dollars “in the family” just to show those Arabs why they don’t want to be messing with us if they know what’s good for them.

That’s fine, I guess. I mean, it won’t change much of anything over the long run, but if folks feel like protesting then, well, OK.

Look, I have no problems with civil disobedience, revolutions, marches, boycotts or any of that as a means of making things happen. There’s a time and place for everything, and there have been numerous occasions when all of these tactics have been utilized successfully — and not just by black folks — to make an extremely important point. Sometimes things boil over and the only way to get the attention of the folks whose attention needs to be attracted is to get a little crazy. Being nice, polite and reasonable doesn’t always get you what you want. The civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the feminist movement and the union movement are just a few examples that serve as indisputable proof of this.

But if you scream too loud too often in somebody’s ear they tend to go deaf. I don’t know that the often strained relationship between Detroit’s Arab-American community and the city’s African-American community has gotten to that point yet, but it’s got to be getting close. Although the stated reason for the boycott is related to several recent incidents reportedly perpetrated against blacks by Arabs, the real reason goes back considerably further than any recent event.

Ever since the Arab community established its sizable presence in Detroit and began to flex its growing economic muscle, blacks and Arabs have supposedly viewed one another with suspicion and distrust. Blacks are said to be ticked off that “those Arabs own all the gas stations and convenience stores in the city.” We accuse the Arabs of looking down at blacks and, consequently, acting as if they can treat us any way they feel like. As for the Arabs, they apparently feel as if many members of the black community frequently treat them with flagrant disrespect in their stores and too often say and do things to force a confrontation that will later be unjustifiably blamed on the Arabs as an example of their racist attitudes.

Here’s the thing as I see it: There’s no question that some Arab store owners treat black patrons like garbage for whatever reason. I’ve seen it myself, as have many of my friends, and I don’t think anyone who lives in Detroit can honestly say this isn’t going on and hasn’t been going on for quite some time. When I lived in Chicago nearly 16 years ago the same thing was going on there, and just like here in Detroit there was always talk of protests, boycotts, etc.

But I’ve also seen that the complaints made by the Arabs are hardly fabricated out of thin air. More than once I’ve seen a black person ahead of me in line at a gas station or a convenience store do or say something so ugly, rude or disrespectful to the Arab employee who happened to be behind the counter that it was embarrassing.

I’ve also seen Arab store employees and black patrons who apparently have gotten to know each other standing around talking and laughing with one another. OK, so maybe I haven’t seen it all the time, but at least I’ve seen it and I suspect some of you reading this column have seen it too.

Several weeks ago when I was getting gas at a nearby Sunoco here on the west side, a black guy was telling the Arab guy behind the counter not to even give a second thought to an ugly comment tossed his way by a particular African-American woman who had just left the store in a huff about whatever. I confess I came in on the tail end of the incident, so I can’t swear to who was wrong and who was right. Maybe the woman had a reason to cuss the man out. Still, I thought it was worth noting that the black man and the Arab man knew each other well enough to speak honestly with each other about what had just gone down without having to resort to cultural turf wars.

Personally, I think it will be one-on-one discussions such as these that will go a lot further toward healing the wound than any broad-brush boycott that, if successful, will punish the innocent right along with the guilty. Such a boycott may be the easiest way to make the point, but it’s not the fairest and I doubt it will be the most effective.

Although the intended effect of the boycott may be to force the “good” Arabs to convince the “bad” Arabs to clean up their act (otherwise they will all suffer and sink together), I sincerely doubt anything of the sort will happen. Rather, the Arabs with screwed-up attitudes will go about their business as usual and will stubbornly remain screwed-up; meanwhile, those who have worked hard to be good neighbors will get pissed off and wonder whether the warnings from some of their screwed-up brethren about “those blacks” weren’t true after all.

A week ago Monday, Adeeb Haddad, a 58-year-old gas station attendant in Southfield, was charged with assaulting a 13-year-old black kid whom he thought had stolen something from the store. If the kid was stealing anything, then he was obviously wrong to be doing so, but nothing he stole could have possibly legitimized assault. But the man who allegedly assaulted the kid was named Adeeb Haddad. If the charges are just. the man who deserves to be punished is Adeeb Haddad.

Not every Arab you see.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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