By Ruth Ferguson
A quick stop for gas is usually a simple task. For Minister Jeffrey Muhammad and Thomas Pak, a recent stop turned into an ugly confrontation.
Muhammad told the North Dallas Gazette on Monday, last December he was late for a funeral and running low on gas. Muhammad said generally he does not buy gas at the Diamond Shamrock Kwik Stop on Martin Luther King Boulevard because he feels the price is consistently higher than other locations. However, on this occasion, Muhammad stopped to spend $5 on gas. Muhammad noticed the credit card readers at the pump were taped over, so he went inside the store to pay for his purchase.
Muhammad said as he approached the counter inside the store, Thomas Pak, a Korean American store owner, informed him a $10 minimum purchase is required. When Muhammad raised concerns, Pak suggested he could get money from the ATM located in the store. Muhammad believes the fees charged for withdrawals are too high and that Pak could not tell him how much of his money he was required to spend.
Pak said Muhammad was confrontational from the beginning of their encounter. His supporters have indicated he has acknowledged he does not a $10 minimum purchase requirement. However, because he felt Muhammad was confrontational he made the statement in an effort to encourage him to leave quickly.
Both sides agree at this point heated words were exchanged, including Pak’s reference to Muhammad as a “broke a–, n—–.”
According to Muhammad, Pak said, “You are a slave; you should go back to Africa.” He countered, “Where will you go back because the Black man is the original man?”
However, Pak alleges Muhammad called him a “Chinaman” and told him to go back to China.
The term Chinaman is a deeply offensive slur to members of the Asian community.
Although other news stories indicate Muhammad acknowledged using the slur after Pak’s comments, during the telephone interview on Monday Muhammad denied making the statement to Pak.
After others learn of the incident, Muhammad indicated community leaders requested his permission to organize a protest of the store, to which he agreed. They believe Pak’s business practices are exploiting his minority customers. Monday through Saturday for nearly two months, protestors have stood outside the store with signs encouraging potential customers to shop elsewhere.
Eugene Chin Yu, the national president of the Federation of Korean Associations, visited Dallas last week and attempted to meet with both parties in an effort to resolve the dispute. Muhammad acknowledged he spoke with Yu by phone, but did not attend any meetings.
Yu said during his meeting with Pak, he told him point blank, “Don’t you ever use the n-word again.” He cautions Pak, “This is your business, but if you choose to operate your business here, then you need to get along with your customers.”
Yu also reminded Pak that he forgot three key principles of business:
“Rule #1 customer service, rule #2 customer service, and rule #3 customer service, because without the customer you do not have a business!”
Yu said he considers cultural awareness and coalition building an important part of his role as the national president of the Korean American organization, which boasts 198 chapters throughout the country. During his yearlong outreach to gain the position, he shared the need of his constituents to understand the legacy and accomplishments of African Americans.
“You must appreciate the African American – they are more like a big brother to us,” Yu said. Pointing to the history of slavery and racial discrimination suffered for centuries, Yu added, “Generation after generation, they fought for equality, opportunity and freedom and did a very good job. We are the newcomers. We got a free bus ride. We go into their community and we are doing business.”
He suggests it would behoove the Korean American business owners to try and understand the anger and frustration of their African American customers. Yu feels the language barrier contributes to the miscommunication and mistrust between the two communities.
Early in January, Richard Barrett-Cuetara, the attorney representing Pak, went to the store during the protest on two separate days. He introduced himself to the protestors including Dr. Juanita Wallace, Rev. Ronald Wright and others.
Speaking by phone late Wednesday afternoon Barrett-Cuetara shared the message he provided to the protestors, “I shook their hands and told them, ‘We would like to work with you to resolve this. We can meet with you at any point and time.’” However, since the offer was extended on January 3, Barrett-Cuetara has not received a response.
Barrett-Cuetara also shared that over 400 customers have signed a petition in support of Pak. The overwhelming majority of those who signed are African Americans who live in the neighborhood.
“We want this resolved peacefully,” according to Barrett-Cuetara. “We are working extremely close with local leaders in the black community. We want everyone to try to get along and respect each other. Intolerance is not to be accepted, end of discussion. However, as Dr. Martin Luther King suggested, protest but talk and let’s work this out.”
Despite Pak’s mistakes, which he publically apologized for during an appearance on the radio station KHVN last week, Yu and others are concerned about what they feel is an overreaction to what was a disagreement between two men. During his visit to Dallas last week, Yu attempted to meet with leaders of the on-going protest, including Dr. Juanita Wallace, president of the Dallas Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP).
“We both as community leaders have responsibilities; fighting is not the solution,” Yu said. Instead the two communities should try to, “learn from the mistakes made so we can be better people, for a better tomorrow.”
Muhammad said there is no reason for a meeting because the protesters believe there is only one resolution to their concerns regarding Pak – he needs to close his business in South Dallas. Muhammad and others have shared this perspective in statements during recent Dallas City Council meetings.
“He [Pak] should leave this community because he is not welcome. They don’t need to meet with us. We have not given them a list of demands of things we want from him personally. If they want to help us, they can talk to their brother about packing up and getting out of our community,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad said the protestors’ preference is that Black people will own the businesses in the area. However, if non-Blacks are going to do business in the community, Muhammad said, “they can at least be fair and show respect,” something protestors feel Pak has not demonstrated.
Pak owns other stores in the DFW community. The suggestion Pak should close the business he has operated for 10 years at this location concerns Yu.
“You can’t tell someone to shutdown and leave – this is America and this the 21st century,” Yu said. He suggested that such a request is like a public lynching of Pak.
Muhammad said that during a recent telephone conversation with Yu, he disagreed with the lynching analogy.
“I told him [Yu] that he could not lecture me on lynching, because I am a descendent of innocent men and women who were victims of lynching,” Muhammad said.
He feels it is an inappropriate comparison, because Pak is getting what he deserves for his unfair business practices.
“It is business people like him [Pak] who is committing the crime. They are lynching the pocket books of the community with overpriced products of less quality and with disrespect.”
During the upcoming weekend, the Federation of Korean Associations will host a convention at the Omni Hotel. The agenda includes a speech from the Texas president of the NAACP, Gary Bledsoe. In addition to the NAACP, representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) are also slated to attend the convention this weekend.
Over the last several months, Yu’s organization was in talks with Benjamin Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, regarding an alliance. The two organizations are finalizing the details on signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which will result in the encouragement of the Federation of Korean Association members becoming members of the NAACP. Representatives of both organizations will hopefully sign the MOU at a White House event with President Barack Obama within the next two months.
Yu said he believes members of his organization need to become active participants of the NAACP, “because we are all colored people. We need to join with our big brother.”
This is a part of his effort to encourage Federation of Korean Association members to stretch beyond their comfort zone of the Korean American community.
“You can’t always just be Korean, Korean, Korean. Try to be Americans; you are no longer in Korea,” Yu said.
Yu has also encouraged Korean Americans to become more involved in local politics. He admits generally Korean Americans do not have a clear understanding of the political divisions in the U.S., but must begin to educate themselves and vote.
“No vote, no voice,” Yu said.
He points out there are no Korean American U.S. Representatives, U.S. Senators, or governor. Yu said many of the nearly 4 million Korean Americans are first- or second-generation Americans.