Longform

How a Battle Over a Korean-Owned Kwik Stop Divided, Then United, South Dallas

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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.

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Greg Howard