By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
New Year's Eve, 2011. Just across the moat on Interstate 45, at exit at 283B, down the Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard ramp to where the highway spills into Fair Park, there's a corner with an open liquor store and a closed movie theater. It's usually pretty desolate here, save for foot traffic to the nearby Nation of Islam mosque or the gas station. Tonight, though: people everywhere.
They're up and down the block, but most are congregated in front of the gas station, a squat, dusty Diamond Shamrock Kwik Stop. Some are wearing T-shirts and jeans, but others are in their Sunday best: suits, dresses, heels, bow ties, fedoras. It's Saturday. They're carrying cardboard signs scrawled with hand-written messages: "Exploitation," "Stop Don't Shop!," "Killed a man 4 stealing," "No Somos NIGGERS No Compra AQUI."
These aren't just any people. Most of South Dallas' black community leaders are wielding signs, walking the line. The Reverend Ronald Wright of the Justice Seekers. His twin brother, Mickey. Juanita Wallace, president of Dallas' NAACP chapter. Student Minister Brother Jeffery Muhammad from the Nation of Islam. Joyce Foreman, the community activist. Legendary civil rights fighter the Reverend Peter Johnson isn't here, but his assistant Karen is standing in for him. Dallas councilwoman Carolyn Davis isn't here, but word is she was out protesting the day before.
And they're all smiling. South Dallas — young and old, men and women, Christian and Muslim — is finally fighting back. They're unified, they're motivated, they even have a name: The United South Dallas Coalition. They have a plan, too: They're going to drive the Kwik Stop out of business, reopen it under black ownership and take back what's rightfully theirs.
Immigrants have been running stores down here forever, but the stories they've heard about this immigrant are too much. The gas station's owner, a Korean man named Thomas Pak, was brutalizing the community, they say. He was overcharging on gas. He was calling black women bitches and rifling through their purses before allowing them to leave the store. He enforced a $10 debit card minimum. And he had the audacity to insult Jeffery Muhammad, calling the local Nation of Islam leader a "broke-ass nigger" and a "monkey," and telling him to go back to Africa.
But that isn't the worst of it. The worst happened a year before, when, the story goes, Pak chased down and killed a young black man. Shot him right in the back as he tried to get away, the penalty for stealing a couple of dollars, to hear some tell it, although others on the line swear he took nothing but a candy bar.
Cars slow to read the signs, honking in support and continuing down the road to another station. The protesters are loud, and many have one fist in the air:
It's December, but it's warm out. It's the dawn of a new year. It's a happy time.
Except this: They've been lied to.
They won't know it for weeks, until the stories they're standing on crumble beneath their feet, but they're out here, draped in suits and righteousness, because of one man's lies — a flock of misled sheep being herded toward a buzz saw by one of those leaders in the suits.
There's a liquor store next to Tommy Pak's gas station, but you wouldn't know it from his inventory. The entire rear wall of the Shamrock is stocked with booze: hard stuff, beer, fruity wine coolers and malt liquor. Supply for the demand, which is so high that tubs are even erected in the middle of the store, filled with ice and packed to the brim with more beer.
To see it you have to cross the picket line, which doesn't make the protesters happy. Some gesture with their signs, raising them higher or thrusting them toward you. Others make personal appeals: "Come on brother, support us!" "Don't pay to get disrespected!" "Hey, hey, hey, hey!" Some do nothing and just look at you, their eyes sad, or smoldering.
The windows are barred. The front door is open. The Kwik Stop is packed with everything and nothing at all: pork rinds and baby's gloves and peanut butter and cell phones and condoms and bananas and jewelry and lottery tickets. There's a clerk standing up at the cash register. To his left, sitting down in a chair, barely visible over the glass counter, is Pak.
His name is Thomas, but everyone calls him Tommy. He's a small, nervous man from the south of South Korea. He says he's 40, but he has a full head of raven hair and a modest, pre-pubescent pudginess in his jowls and belly that would be more at home on a 10-year-old. His small, suspicious eyes are constantly in varying stages of redness. Even when he laughs, on rare, disarming occasions, he looks to be on the verge of tears.
He smiles often, though, specifically with customers he knows, which is just about everyone who crosses the picket line. He works all day, almost every day. He's owned the store for 10 years.
Pak came to the United States in 1990, a beneficiary of President Kennedy's posthumous Immigration and Nationality Act, passed in 1965 to allow immigrants to move here to join family. His whole family came to join his aunt in San Antonio. His father got a job as a janitor. Pak, 18 at the time, went to college and, in 1994, Pak enlisted in the Army National Guard. His English was so broken he had to take a language test to get in.