How a Battle Over a Korean-Owned Kwik Stop Divided, Then United, South Dallas
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.
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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.
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.
Muhammad took the podium, his broad shoulders square, his back uncomfortably straight. He spoke, flanked by bow tied members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam's all-male security force. The leaders were swept to the side, yet still they stood, transfixed by Muhammad's plodding, righteous cadence, as the student minister relived his own run-in with Pak.
"It was said to me by one of my brothers that it was unfortunate that it happened to me," he said. "But I said, 'No, it was a fortunate thing that it happened to me.'"
Muhammad told a story from a couple weeks earlier, when he walked in to get some gas and, he said, was met instead with a vicious onslaught of racial slurs. To make it worse, Muhammad said, the owner was ripping people off on gas, charging $3.29 a gallon. Muhammad decided to only put $5 in the tank but was told the store had a $10 minimum for credit card transactions.
"Because it simply says that if a black man can walk into the store with a suit and a tie on," Muhammad stopped short for effect. "I have a college degree. I came with money to spend — and I'm disrespected like this, it means there's so much blatant disrespect he felt comfortable disrespecting us in our own community.
"We're here to say that we want an end to the price gouging in our community," he continued. "We're saying to our own people that we need to pool our resources and then begin to open up businesses in our own community and shut their businesses down." He was echoing the words of the Nation of Islam's supreme minister, Louis Farrakhan, who preached a "Do For Self" tenet, teaching that if blacks owned their own businesses and hired their own kind, their lives and communities would improve.
"This is about economic warfare. And they have declared war on our community," Muhammad announced, referring to Korean immigrants. "Now it's time to stand up and take back that power by not spending our money in stores where people disrespect us."
His fellow leaders applauded, raising their fists. Councilwoman Carolyn Davis wasn't technically a part of the coalition, but even she lent influence to the cause, calling for a boycott of her constituent's small business. "I am hoping, I am hoping, I am hoping today that nobody goes into this store," she said, looking into the cameras. "I stand firm with the Nation. I stand firm with Brother Muhammad and his congregation."
Davis knew what was obvious to anyone watching: Muhammad was clearly the catalyst. He'd assigned the black leaders their roles. He'd made and supplied the signs. The coalition said it was a group endeavor. But to an outsider like Davis, it was clear. This was a Nation of Islam operation.
Still, Muhammad insisted that his was a supporting role. "I didn't actually, officially, myself call the protest," he said one day on the picket line, his booming voice drowning out a reporter's question. "But I support the protest, because there are other organizations that are a part of the protest."
Even within the Nation of Islam — which reached its peak during the Civil Rights era by preaching black empowerment and black supremacy — Muhammad is a throwback. He's smart, charismatic, ambitious, and he's got preacher-speak down pat, which is why he rose through the ranks of the NOI so quickly. By 1995, when Muhammad was only 28, he was a fully ordained minister.
In June of that year, though, four boys between 12 and 16 broke into an antique store at Westcliff Mall in South Dallas. They tried to make way with the register and a few hundred bucks. They didn't stand a chance. The NOI stresses physical fitness, and it just happened that four Nation of Islam members were working security at the mall that day. Muhammad was with them. They chased down the would-be thieves and, the Associated Press reported, ushered the kids into a meeting room in the mall, where about 50 more Nation of Islam members were waiting. The boys, three brothers and a friend, were then "forced through a gauntlet." The entire congregation took turns whipping the boys with belts and bamboo canes.
Muhammad claimed to be disciplining the kids, but the authorities saw it differently. He and four of his followers were indicted for aggravated kidnapping.
It's the sort of incident that might scare off more mainstream activists — but it happened almost 20 years ago. Still, throughout his effort to rally South Dallas, he dropped hints alluding to his ultimate ambition.
"Our enemy has done a very good job teaching others," Muhammad said on a radio show during the protests. "Those who originally oppressed us in this country have done a very good job teaching others who come to this country, like the Asian and Koreans in particular, how to divide and conquer us."
It's a view he's careful not to share with the "white media." Muhammad kicked the Observer out of a meeting about the boycott when he realized that the reporter, although black, didn't work for a black-owned newspaper. And after initially agreeing to an interview, he later refused to speak with the reporter.
"You serve a news organ that has attacks everyone who stands up for black and poor people," he eventually told the reporter in an email. "You know your intentions better than any, but you are still a tool in the hand of the enemy of the rise of our community. I know who you really are, and it's not what you are being used for. More importantly, I know my enemy very well. He happens to be your enemy and you will soon see it for yourself, if you don't already."
Meanwhile, on went the protests. And if Dallas wasn't already convinced of the protesters' cause, a man named Arthur Carpenter approached the Nation of Islam with a story that would help seal the deal.
Two days after the press conference, Carpenter said, he ran out of gas down the road and walked into the store with a 5-quart oil jug to fill. Pak said it was an illegal container; he wouldn't let him use the pump.
After an exchange, an onlooker volunteered his gas can, so Carpenter walked outside to fill up. He went to a pump, out of Pak's sight, and started to pump gas. Pak leaned outside the front door and yelled for him to switch. Frustrated, Carpenter slammed the gas nozzle back into the holster. Pak says the customer broke it.
Pak was furious. The gas nozzles cost $400 each, and he replaced that nozzle the previous week. He stormed outside. One of his clerks grabbed the can of Mace from behind the counter and followed Pak out.
Pak says when he approached, Carpenter pushed him. Pak pushed him back, hard. According to Pak, the man reached into his pocket and threatened the owner.
"I'm gonna cut you up!"
The clerk reacted before Pak, Macing Carpenter. Carpenter says that Pak Tasered him and sucker-punched him when he hit the ground. The owner's version of events is even more horrific.
He says that after Carpenter was Maced, Pak was still scared. So he swung, connected with Carpenter's face, dropped him. Blind and stunned, Carpenter collapsed. Pak then reared back and kicked him in the face.
Carpenter looked to be out cold, but by the time Pak and his clerk retreated to the store to call the cops, Carpenter had stumbled off. The next time they saw him, he was in the front of the store. His right eye was black, the eyeball was bloody from burst vessels and he was in a neck brace. He held a sign:
"STOP Don't Shop. Racist."
Nation of Islam members interviewed him on tape, finalized the official name of the protest ("Don't Stop Don't Shop"), and had a 15-minute promotional video up on New Year's Day.
Muhammad's plan was falling into place. Observer columnist Jim Schutze showed up with a video camera and taped Pak's newly hired lawyer issuing a flurry of no comments, fueling animosity toward Pak. Muhammad went to City Hall and retold the story of Phillips' murder.
"A man was killed in the store who was chased down the street from the store. And this is something that has re-emerged as a result of the protest." He didn't mention that it was he who re-emerged it. "The man was shot in the back, and we're still waiting for information from our councilperson, who is looking into it." Davis voiced her support.
That same week, Peter Johnson got a call in Foundation/Justice Seekers' shared Oak Cliff office. It was Muhammad.
"We're at a 75 percent success rate!" Johnson announced to the Wright twins. Protesters were out in force everyday. Only a quarter of customers crossed the picket lines. Deliveries to the Kwik Stop slowed; Pak simply wasn't turning product over fast enough.
Pak was on the ropes, and the coalition hatched a plan to finish him off: They would find a black investor to buy out the beleaguered Pak. It'd cost about $500,000 to purchase it, Johnson and the Wrights figured, although they were going to try to force the price down. To do that, they were going to protest, denting his profits until he submitted.
By now the protest was making headlines in Korea. Friends and family called to make sure Pak was still alive. One of Pak's supporters says Koreans opened three bank accounts to channel money to Pak and his business.
Finally, Pak and his attorney reached out to Koreans. A few came to the rescue: Chong Choe, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees and the Chairman of the National Korean American Coalition. Ted Kim, an ordained minister, the only independent banker in the country, and the vice president of the Korean Society in Dallas. And Charles Park, the eldest of Dallas' Korean community leaders, whom Ronald Wright referred to as "the Godfather."
Charles Park, who once held a post in the NAACP, and the coalition went to the NAACP and brokered a meeting with Anthony Bond, Wallace's good friend and the founder of the Irving NAACP chapter.
When they met, Bond looked Pak up and down.
"Did you call him a nigger?
Pak's eyes were red, and he was sweating. He nodded. Then, he started to cry. Pak told a different story.
He said he was working when a bald, black man in a suit and bow tie walked in. He now knows it to be Muhammad, but Pak didn't recognize him at the time. Muhammad was irate as he accused Pak of exploiting blacks and price gouging.
"I want $5 on my debit card, right now!" the man demanded after a brief exchange, slamming his debit card onto the counter.
Pak said he felt disrespected in his own store. So he lied. "Sorry. We have a $10 minimum."
Pak told Bond the customer then called him a Chinaman — a slur to any Asian but especially a Korean, since the Chinese had oppressed Koreans for the better part of two millennia. Pak lost it.
The customer shouted right back. "You don't know who you're messing with. I'll be back!"
It was a more nuanced version of Muhammad's events, and believable since Pak admitted to calling him a "nigger." Muhammad never strayed from his claim of innocence. But later that morning, he seemed as enlivened by the encounter as he did offended: "Korean called me a slave and said we should go back to Africa," he wrote on Twitter. "Can't tweet my words, but I invited both clerks outside to a savage beating."
Two weeks later, he was outside with a camera crew.
After his meeting with the NAACP, Pak went on a popular black radio show to apologize, to submit. He cried again.
The Korean community, meanwhile, was so scared that a Korean consul flew up from Houston, and the president of the Federation of Korean Associations personally invited Muhammad and the NAACP's Dallas president, Juanita Wallace, to the Korean-American leaders' first General Meeting and Leadership Conference at the Omni Hotel. Muhammad was even scheduled a half-hour to speak. Media would be there. No one else from the United South Dallas Coalition was invited. Muhammad didn't ask them, either.
"We are the mother and father of human beings, and you should honor your mother and father, as the Bible said." Muhammad's NOI cohorts urged him on.
"The Honorable Louis Farrakhan has taught us that business is warfare, and it appears our community is under siege. Many have asked us, are your protesters targeting Asian businesses?" He paused. "The real question is, has the Asian community targeted the black community to exploit? I believe there's more evidence to the latter."
Until this moment, Muhammad had managed to keep his most extreme views under wraps, at least in mainstream media outlets. Coupled with his giving credit for the protests to more palatable leaders, the effort had stayed on track. Now, with cameras rolling, Muhammad was veering off the rails.
"The Jews have always wanted a relationship with the black community, and they have sucked the resources out of the black community, and after them, the Pakistanis have done it, and after them the Indians have done it, the Arabs have done it, the Italians have done it in our community, and now the Vietnamese did it, the Koreans," he said. "You are now the next person in a line of people who has come to the black community and taken advantage of a people."
It was Muhammad's coronation. For years, he'd been the head of a fringe sect. People dismissed him for his extreme beliefs and slim numbers every time he opened his mouth. Now, he was the voice of the black community.
The NOI got a copy of the speech and uploaded it to YouTube. One supporter, ex-councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw, was so moved she wept when she heard it. Others were disgusted. The moment had exposed Muhammad as what he was: a black supremacist.
"People came up to me and said they thought they were in the presence of the devil," Bond later said. "I felt it, too.
They also felt the presence of a scam. Because as Muhammad spoke, the true story of Marcus Phillips' death was making its rounds.
Five days before Muhammad addressed the Koreans, the Morning News finally jumped into the fray, publishing its first story on the protests. In it, reporter Steve Thompson painted a decidedly different picture of the way Phillips died.
After Phillips asked for his cigarettes, the clerk turned to reach for a pack. That's when Phillips went for his score: not a candy bar, not a few bucks, and not the store's cash drawer. He reached for the entire cash register.
According to the police report, Phillips lifted the register off the counter and turned to run. He was headed out the door when the register's cord, still plugged in, yanked him to a halt. When he turned, the clerk had a shotgun in his hand and told him to get on the ground. He was calling the police. Phillips knelt down.
As the clerk turned to call the police, Phillips jumped up with the register and ran out of the store, ripping the cord loose. The clerk followed, sprinting after Phillips, cradling his shotgun through the morning darkness.
When the clerk had just about caught up with Phillips, the thief turned and threw the cash register at the clerk. It hit the ground and broke; the cash drawer fell out. Both men lunged for it, but Phillips was faster. He threw a punch, picked up the drawer, and sprinted across MLK.
The Korean dashed across the four lanes and caught up to Phillips again. Phillips turned and tried to hit the clerk with the cash drawer. The Korean backed up, took one shot into the ground. Phillips, desperate, pressed on, swinging the drawer at the Korean's head twice. When he ducked, Phillips lunged for the gun.
The clerk fired.
It only took one shot. Hot pellets ripped through Phillips' chest. He died on the sidewalk.
When police pulled up, the Korean still held the shotgun. It wasn't Tommy Pak; the owner rarely worked early mornings anymore. He was at home with his wife and daughter.
The case went to a grand jury and was ultimately dropped. Surveillance and multiple eyewitnesses all agreed: The clerk had shot in self-defense.
Not long after Muhammad's racist screed to the Koreans, the United South Dallas Coalition folded. On March 1, the Korean Community Coalition and the Justice Seekers Coalition held a joint press conference to sign a proclamation between the two groups. A new black coalition, comprising of the Justice Seekers, TAFFI and the Peter Johnson Foundation, announced an end to the protests. They started the protests, Ronald Wright reasoned, so they'd end them.
The Koreans and blacks vowed to worship together and form a partnership. Blacks had no businesses in South Dallas; maybe Koreans like Kim could help teach blacks how to be bankable. Koreans had no political influence within the city; black leaders would educate and introduce their Korean counterparts to Dallas politics.
Meanwhile, the black leaders distanced themselves from Muhammad. According to Bond, the NAACP issued a gag order to keep president Juanita Wallace, one of the minister's staunchest allies, from speaking in his support. Councilwoman Davis fell silent, retreating from the media. Johnson denied ever playing a role in the protests. Only Wright fessed up. Asked if Muhammad duped them into protesting, he thought for a second. "He did," he said.
Muhammad, meanwhile, kept protesting. The week after his triumph at the Korean conference, the Don't Stop Don't Shop Facebook page uploaded a generic picture of a large Korean family. Accompanied was a "letter."
"This happy KOREAN family would like to thank black women for giving KOREANS another $16.4 million dollars today," it read. "They also would like thank you for paying their mortgages, buying them the latest Lexus', and preparing their little ones to go to the best colleges. By the way, they said they will never hire blacks and won't give a dime back to your worthless communities. Thank you black woman for hating yourself so much. Your low self esteem is making us very rich. Thank you."
It was cordially signed, THE KWON FAMILY.
A few of Muhammad's soldiers were Christians, but now the protest resembled what it always was: a Nation of Islam operation. The protesters worked in shifts, usually ones or twos. But even protesters got cold, bored or had to work. Often, the sidewalk in front of the Kwik Stop would be empty. Business started to pick back up with fewer people harassing customers. They needed the store.
The day the proclamation was signed, Muhammad was in the street with a dozen protesters. A week after the proclamation, though, there was just a lone protester, holding up a sign: "Protest DON'T STOP DON'T SHOP Protest."
A burgundy Toyota Corolla rolled past the protester, into the dusty gas station, and pulled up to a pump.
"Hey brother, don't stop here!" The protester raised his sign. Maybe the driver couldn't see it. A young black kid opened the driver's side door. Then he glanced at the protester, shook his head and walked inside.
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