By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He served six years before moving to Dallas and getting a gig with an engineering company. He hated that job. He wanted to be his own boss, to make money for himself. He wasn't cowed, he says, by how many Korean-owned businesses failed within the first few years.
Many Korean storeowners were immigrants who sold their estates to finance a move to America and a new storefront. Others, not as well off back home, formed groups, sometimes as many as 20, each member pledging money each month for equal stakes in the business.
Pak asked his family to help make a down payment. They gave him half; he borrowed the other half from United Central Bank, a chain known for being able to serve Asian immigrants and Yankees both. In 2002, Pak bought the gas station, succeeding another Korean owner.
The neighborhood around the station is almost completely black. His shop was one of dozens of foreign-owned businesses on the boulevard; there are somewhere between 700 and 2,000 Korean-owned businesses in South Dallas, Korean leaders estimate. When Pak moved in, blacks owned just a few.
Soon, everyone knew Pak. The longer he stayed, the more comfortable he became. He befriended some people in the community, including Thomas, a homeless black man with no front teeth and wrinkled, leathery skin that adds decades to his visage. Pak let him wash windows, pump customers' gas and do other odd jobs for tips. Often, Pak gave Thomas a sandwich and something to drink to keep him going.
It's not the sexiest gig for Thomas — or for Pak. But the steady stream of wisecracking regulars breaks up the monotony.
Today it's Tony Manning, stopping in to refuel his Highlander. He's got gray stubble and fair features, the latter a gift from his Dominican father and Irish grandmother. He walks through the door, looking over his shoulder at the protesters.
"They got nothing to do but harass these cats?"
Pak smiles nervously. Manning grabs a 24-ounce Budweiser can, goes to the counter and reaches across to shake Pak's hand.
"I hate this cat right here," Manning says, thumbing at Pak. "This dude right here," Manning continues, now looking at the clerk. "He my boy. This my dog right here."
Pak's smile widens; he's heard the joke before. He doesn't talk. He doesn't talk much anyway, only when addressed, and then under his breath, barely moving his lips, as if to muffle his own voice.
"This nigga right here?" Manning asks, looking again at Pak, who's already laughing. "I don't like him."
It's a rite of passage. First, they asked Pak his name. Then they nixed it for "brother" and "my nigga." Now he smiles, pounds fists and shakes hands, and sometimes he calls them "nigga" right back.
That's how it was with just about everyone, before and even after the morning of September 17, 2010, the night pointed to by those protesters out there. It was 6 a.m. The sun wouldn't rise for another hour. The Kwik Stop had just opened. Marcus Phillips, 26 years old and just released from prison, walked into the store, stopped in front of the counter, gestured past the clerk and asked for a pack of smokes.
That morning outside the Kwik Stop, Phillips lay on the ground, his blood pooled around him, streaming from where the shotgun blast tore into his torso. He was dead.
The police report lists multiple eyewitnesses. There was even an off-duty cop on the scene. But in the days and weeks afterward, nothing happened. A search of news accounts brings up nothing from the time of the shooting. Southern Dallas leaders didn't protest, and business at the store continued uninterrupted. No one went to jail. Phillips' death was buried within the heaping pile of South Dallas statistics, another dead black kid in the ghetto. His story lay hidden for over a year, until it was unearthed in late December, by a student minister in the Nation of Islam named Jeffery Muhammad.
Muhammad's mosque, an austere, sandy building with taupe trim, is a short block away from the Kwik Stop. On December 21, he rounded up South Dallas' black leaders: the Reverend Marion Barnett and the Wright brothers from the Justice Seekers, because they sought justice. He asked them to lead the protests. He got Peter Johnson from the Peter Johnson Foundation for Nonviolence. Johnson once drove Safeway (Safeway!) out of Texas for racism. Corner stores? Duck soup. Muhammad reached out to Wallace at the NAACP, too, because it's the NAACP, and he enlisted Curtis Wilbert from the Texas Alliance for the Formerly Incarcerated, sweetly referred to as TAFFI.
Together, they formed the United South Dallas Coalition. They called a press conference for four days later, right in front of Pak's store. Cameramen set up on the lawn. Someone even schlepped a podium.
Muhammad was a fringe leader, commanding the attention of little more than a sliver of South Dallas. He was Muslim in an area where it wasn't cool to be Muslim. That's why he'd outsourced the protest to all these Christians, who held more sway in the community. But when the cameras rolled, they all looked to him.