GENE DEMBY, HOST:
Just a heads up, y'all - the following episode contains language that some people may find offensive.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
Like, most people should find offensive if they hear it, yes.
MERAJI: Majdi Wadi - you may not have heard of him, but he's pretty well known in Minneapolis, Minn.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Three generations of the Wadi family living the American dream on this spot for more than 30 years.
DEMBY: Majdi Wadi is Palestinian American. He's a devout Muslim and the CEO of the Holy Land brand. It's a family-owned grocery store and a restaurant and a hummus factory.
MERAJI: Sound more familiar now? Maybe you picked up Holy Land hummus at Costco or saw Wadi on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DINERS, DRIVE-INS AND DIVES")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Holy Land is a little piece of the Middle East in the Midwest.
GUY FIERI: Thanks to the Wadi family, who came to Minneapolis by the way of Jordan and Kuwait.
DEMBY: But a lot has changed since the Wadis were kicking it with Guy Fieri.
MERAJI: Mmm hmm.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: On Thursday morning, the CEO of Holyland Deli and Grocery put out a statement on Facebook saying, in part, that he had fired his daughter from the company after social media posts that she made with racial slurs had resurfaced.
MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.
MERAJI: From NPR.
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DEMBY: Just three days after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd and protests erupted in that city, Lianne Wadi's anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-gay tweets were everywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2, BYLINE: (Reading) God already punished you for being Black, so why would you make it worse by being gay? #shitpeopleinmyfamilysay. When a [expletive] from northeast Minneapolis threatens to come back to kill my dad and his family once he's out of jail. #OMG #fuckingscared [Expletive] are poor.
DEMBY: She went full hard-R. Wow.
MERAJI: Yeah. And that's not even the half, OK? That nonsense that we just heard, she tweeted that in 2012. A few years later, in 2016, she posted a photo of her and a monkey on IG with the caption, quote, "made friends with this little N-word today" - and it wasn't N-word. And this isn't all. This isn't all. There's more.
DEMBY: Oh, my. So now Lianne's dad, Majdi Wadi, is fighting to save his family's reputation and their business, and he says he wants to make amends.
MERAJI: And to help him do all that, he called up a Black Muslim leader in Minneapolis - Imam Makram El-Amin.
MAKRAM EL-AMIN: I'll say what he said. He called me because he respects my family. He called me because we are one of the prominent African American Muslim families in this city, in this state. You know, he called me because he needed to.
MAJDI WADI: I called him. I said, I know you're busy. I need to see you. There is a situation here, and I need your help - not help to bail me. And I said, Brother Makram, I'm here today. Tell me what to do.
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MERAJI: So is there a path to redemption for Majdi Wadi once this kind of damage has been done?
DEMBY: And is it the job of a Black man to guide Majdi Wadi to that path?
MERAJI: Gene, NPR's National Desk correspondent Leila Fadel called me about this story when she was reporting in Minneapolis after the police killing of George Floyd reignited the protests for Black lives there. And I was like, this right here - this is a CODE SWITCH story.
DEMBY: It is a CODE SWITCH story. And Leila is here to talk to us about it. Leila, welcome back. What's good? How you been?
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: I've been good. Thanks, you two. I'm really glad to be back. I want to take you first to north Minneapolis, the heart of Black Minneapolis.
EL-AMIN: Nate (ph), how you doing, brother?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm good. How are you?
EL-AMIN: Good, man. It's good to see you, man.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Good to see you.
EL-AMIN: You out of quarantine.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes, sir.
EL-AMIN: Yes, sir. Good to see you, boss.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Good to be out.
EL-AMIN: Yes, sir. I'm sure. I'm sure. Man, we just walking the beat to - seeing how folks is doing, you know?
FADEL: That's Imam Makram El-Amin.
MERAJI: Who we just heard from. He got that phone call from Majdi Wadi asking for help.
FADEL: Right. So on this day, he's out on the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, West Broadway. We're a couple blocks from the historic African American mosque he leads, Masjid An-Nur - Mosque of Light.
EL-AMIN: ...Alaykum. How you doing, brother?
FADEL: Every few steps, he stops to greet community leaders, friends.
EL-AMIN: How you doing, brother? Good to see you, man.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I got a mask for you.
FADEL: That's a Bears fan ribbing him for his Vikings mask. A lot of people are out these days to help or to get help.
EL-AMIN: This is a food desert. It is a food desert. So this has already been here. When you have things like COVID and then the uprising and things of that nature, all these things are coming to a head, so it's the perfect storm right now. It's literally the perfect storm.
FADEL: So between the pandemic, the protests against police brutality, there's little to no access to food. Supermarkets had been closed about a week on the day we're walking around. So the neighborhood banded together to support their most vulnerable.
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FADEL: El-Amin's been in Minneapolis since the '70s. His father joined the Nation of Islam in the '50s in Chicago before El-Amin was born. That message to do for self, build Black power and uplift, it appealed to him in the midst of racism and oppression.
DEMBY: So his dad was in the Nation, but is Makram El-Amin in the Nation? 'Cause I know a lot of stuff went down there.
FADEL: Right, exactly. So no. When Elijah Muhammad died - he was the leader of the Nation of Islam - his son, Warith Deen Mohammed, was chosen as the new leader, and he rejected this idea of Black separatism, brought his followers to orthodox Islam, and that included El-Amin's parents.
MERAJI: Is that how they ended up in Minnesota from Chicago?
FADEL: Yep. He moved to Minneapolis - his father did - to convert a Nation of Islam temple into a traditional mosque, and that was happening around the country. It started as a storefront. Today, Imam Makram El-Amin leads the community in a freestanding building with a dome and also runs a community service program called...
EL-AMIN: Al Maa'uun. It's from the 107th chapter. It means neighborly needs - the neighborly needs.
FADEL: So right now, Al Maa'uun is in full swing, serving thousands of people a week. It provides employment services, hot meals. And the carpeted prayer area that's closed for worship is instead covered in plastic wrap and supplies.
EL-AMIN: We got, like, 2,000 masks that are coming in that are going to be stuffed and sent out as well. These are boxes of dry goods that's going to go to...
FADEL: He wants this to be more - more than just a place for people to turn to for survival, for their basic needs.
EL-AMIN: This is just a symptom of a bigger problem.
FADEL: He wants his mosque and community center to be a place that will address the legacy of a broken criminal justice system, redlining and disinvestment in north Minneapolis.
EL-AMIN: In this moment, that's going to take investment. So we're calling on those who have benefited to invest now.
DEMBY: So investment from those who have benefited. Who is he talking about there?
FADEL: Yeah. Well, he's talking about businesses that built their wealth in communities like this one, some Arab- and Muslim-owned or owned by other immigrants of color, to invest in the communities that made them, so that means places like the corner stores that in some neighborhoods were or are the only access point to food but also typically don't carry fresh produce and opt instead for junk food and what El-Amin calls poison - lottery tickets, alcohol. El-Amin talked about how these businesses ended up here.
EL-AMIN: They haven't really been allowed because of the power structure, white supremacy and other structural things that have happened to really set up shop in other communities, right? So they have found homes across the country amongst African Americans. And in some cases, you know, it feels like folks are coming in, taking advantage of the buying power. Even in, quote-unquote, "poor communities," they're a strong buy. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here. But the idea of them coming in has fueled tensions over the course of time - and not all of them. And I don't want to paint such a broad picture, but I would say to many.
MERAJI: Yeah. And this tension between immigrants of color and African Americans - it's long-standing, and it's something we've talked a lot about on CODE SWITCH. You know, we're coming up here on the 30th anniversary of the death of Latasha Harlins. When she was just 15 years old, a Korean immigrant who owned a convenience store here in south LA shot her in the back of the head. And Latasha was just trying to buy orange juice.
DEMBY: Yeah. Last week would've been Latasha Harlins' 45th birthday. And Soon Ja Du, the store owner who shot her, was effectively sentenced to just community service, and she had to pay for Harlins' funeral costs. But that whole incident - Latasha Harlins' death - became, you know, along with the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King, one of the big sparks of the LA riots in 1992. And when Black people took to the streets and when buildings started getting burned, many of the businesses that were destroyed, that were targeted were owned by Korean Americans.
MERAJI: Yeah, and there's still a lot of hurt over what happened on both sides all these years later, you know? And that's just one example of how this tension has played out. There are more.
FADEL: Exactly, yeah. And that tension is always just one spark away from another fire because the underlying issue is still there - that these businesses are not seen as respectful to the community that they serve.
There's a unique situation with American Muslims. They are one of the most racially and ethnically diverse groups in the country, linked by their faith but also the discrimination they face. But that doesn't mean there isn't anti-Blackness, even with at least 20% of American Muslims being Black. And El-Amin's mosque, like many African American mosques, it's always sat right at that flashpoint, that intersection of race, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic background.
And in the wake of George Floyd's killing, El-Amin's phone has been ringing off the hook because those historic tensions he describes - they're igniting. He's getting calls for guidance from non-Black Muslims and then angry calls from the Black community asking how he's going to handle this. The corner store that called the police on George Floyd - that was Arab American owned, the owner also a Palestinian Muslim, like Wadi. By the way, that owner has expressed deep remorse.
And then just a few days later, those old racist, bigoted tweets from Majdi Wadi's daughter, Lianne, they resurfaced.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Holy Land's owner said that he fired his own daughter, saying that he will not tolerate that type of behavior.
FADEL: That's when Makram El-Amin got that call from Majdi Wadi for help.
EL-AMIN: My family has supported his business for many, many years - many years. He had a relationship with my mother as well, who also called me in the midst of this, was like, what's going on with this?
MERAJI: But just to be clear, Holy Land isn't a corner liquor store in north Minneapolis - right? - with bars on the windows. It's, first of all, it's a few miles away from where you just took us. And if I understand this right, it's a full-service grocery store, among many other things.
FADEL: Right. It's a family business that serves a multiracial customer base. Most of its employees - people of color, immigrants. Famous for its hummus, its halal meat. And they actually don't sell liquor at all. And that's why El-Amin says this racist incident makes it even worse. He talked about this with me later.
EL-AMIN: It was seen to be a departure from that, so like that was a little something better. You know, this person came in, grew their business to a multimillion-dollar business and be - I mean, lots of support from all facets of the community - African American, Somali, Eastern - whatever, right? I mean, everybody - they were a go-to place.
FADEL: He says Holy Land was supposed to be different, but now people are questioning that. He told me a lot of African Americans came to Islam, attracted to the teachings of social justice, equity, accountability, but they found anti-Blackness in non-Black Muslim spaces.
EL-AMIN: The way that they're looking condescendingly at my people is something that it has been reinforced to society. Whether through media and all kinds of things, it's been reinforced, and they've bought it. And how I know that 'cause how they try to interact and treat us. You know, the Prophet, peace be upon him, talked about your religion is really in your human interactions. It's not what you profess and how flowery and what you dress and how long your beard is, all this foolishness. It has nothing to do with that. It's about how you treat people. But when the - when the stuff hits the fan - right? - I need you.
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M WADI: This country gave me, where nowhere else in the world gave me, a home for my kids as a Palestinian, as a refugee.
FADEL: That's Majdi Wadi, and he's showing me around Holy Land in northeast Minneapolis. It started as an idea when Majdi Wadi's brother asked him to come to the U.S. from Jordan and help him expand his little corner store into something bigger.
M WADI: I said, you know what? If I will join you, if I want to become part of this business, I need Holy Land to be different than any other business in United States of America. All of them, they serve good sandwich, good falafel, but they're serving only of their own community. They're not even going across the street. If - when I grow Holy Land, we have to grow Holy Land to serve the 6 million people that they live in the state of Minnesota.
FADEL: That dream - it's now a reality.
He walks me into the bakery.
M WADI: We have the African bread. We have the Iranian bread. We have the Dergan (ph) bread. We have the Iraqi bread. We have the Somalian bread. We have the Nubian East African bread. We have bread from all over the world, and bread-like cookies (ph). We bake it on a daily basis.
FADEL: So all this is in jeopardy because of his daughter, Lianne's, social media posts. This is now the only location of Holy Land. They were evicted from one. They closed two others, shut down their hummus factory after losing contracts with places like Costco. There's a boycott campaign. The family has received death threats. And so far, he says they've lost millions of dollars, laid off dozens of people, mostly immigrants that work for the business.
M WADI: One of the hardest days of my life was the other day when I have to meet with my factory employees - 28 families - and tell them, I'm really sorry; I'm shutting down my factory. You've got to go home. I mean, is this is how we want to solve the problem - by punishing other people?
MERAJI: That's hard to hear. Like, is this going overboard? Does the punishment fit the crime? I'm sure people listening are wondering about that, too.
MERAJI: Although we have to say those social media posts from Lianne were horrific, and we just scratched the surface with the ones we played. They were definitely terrible.
FADEL: Yeah. You know, Majdi Wadi told me when he saw the posts, he was so shocked and so angry, he could barely look at Lianne. As a father, he told her...
M WADI: I love you, but you did a great mistake. You did a huge mistake. I'm not sure how you're going to live with this mistake if you didn't do anything about it. Do you want to live with it for the rest of your life? Do you want to be labeled a racist for the rest of your life?
FADEL: So Majdi Wadi and his wife have looked for answers about how Lianne learned the things she wrote.
MERAJI: I mean, Leila, Lianne did hashtag her tweets #shitpeopleinmyfamilysay. She tagged her cousin in multiple tweets.
FADEL: Yeah, that's true.
MERAJI: I don't know. I feel like this could be a family affair, maybe.
DEMBY: Did you ask Majdi Wadi about all that #shitpeopleinmyfamilysay? Did you ask him?
FADEL: I did. I actually - yeah, I asked him specifically about that hashtag when he was saying, like, where did she learn this?
M WADI: Saying shit family says, I'm not sure where she come up - I ask her this question. I said, where did you come from this one when you say shit family says? Did you ever hear me talking about? No, I mean family in general. Her cousin - what about her? I mean, I - till now, she didn't come clear to me.
FADEL: Look; he told me these were things that Lianne wrote in high school at 15. He says that's not an excuse, but she was also going through what he called a bad phase, the only brown Muslim kid in her white high school trying to fit in.
M WADI: I came to America in 1994. She was my first child. Nobody ever told me, which is - this is not an excuse - how to raise an Arabic Muslim Palestinian kid in America.
FADEL: Wadi fired Lianne as director of catering, and that was probably within hours of the tweets resurfacing, issued an open letter apologizing for what she said. And he told me multiple times that the posts were disgusting and racist but that she's a different person now. She also apologized on her IG and in the local press.
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LIANNE WADI: I want to apologize from the bottom of my heart. They were such, like, horrible and vile things, and that's not who I am. It's not what I believe in.
FADEL: Lianne chose not to speak to me, but obviously Majdi Wadi did, saying he's determined to fix this. He's worried his business won't survive and all his employees will lose their jobs. And he doesn't want this to be what his family's remembered for.
M WADI: This is not the legacy that I want to leave behind me as a racist or a father who raised racism. As I told you, there is two options about it. It's just to make - hire the best PR company in the world...
FADEL: By the way, there is a PR woman in the room with us.
DEMBY: Wait; so he did hire a PR company?
M WADI: ...Apologize for (unintelligible). People - human beings tend to be forgiven by nature - by nature. After a while, you forget. Have a nice day. Business will come back, booming. Is this what I want? No, this is not what I want. I changed my perspective about legacy now. Yeah, I told you the legacy first, I want to be bigger than Chipotle, bigger than Sabra hummus, bigger than this one. Now, I still want to do this, but I'm going to use the money, if I succeed in doing this, to reach the ultimate legacy and (unintelligible) by being a role model in the change that this movement is looking for.
MERAJI: So he still wants to be a huge brand - bigger than Chipotle - but he also wants to be a role model in the movement for Black lives. Am I hearing that right?
FADEL: Well, to be clear, it's my understanding from the long interview I did with Wadi that he wants to lead in his own community, the Arab Muslim community, on how to be a good ally and an anti-racist.
DEMBY: It's kind of hard to figure out how seriously to take that, how genuinely we should interpret that 'cause a lot of businesses right now in this moment - obviously not in Majdi Wadi's situation, but a lot of businesses are doing anti-racism as ass cover (ph).
FADEL: Yeah, they are. And he knows people are going to be really skeptical that now he's starting this.
M WADI: Oh, because you've been exposed, now you're going to start working in this one - because you lost business, because you lost Costco, because you lost the airport, because - you know what? I'm not going to convince you otherwise. We are determined.
MERAJI: I guess I'm still not clear up to this point about what exactly Majdi Wadi's determined to do.
FADEL: Yeah. That's - well, that's probably 'cause it feels like he's still figuring this out in real time. I don't think he was clear about what he should do, and it's really why he called on Makram El-Amin. I mean, this is a guy who didn't have a Twitter account or know the term anti-Blackness until all this went down. He said things like, why can Black people call him the N-word in a nice way and he can't say it back?
M WADI: When you call me that name, I think it's OK to call you that name.
FADEL: And then he said more than once that it was the responsibility of African Americans to reach out to Arab immigrants like him and help them understand anti-Blackness.
M WADI: I believe that the African American also dropped the ball where - not by not fighting enough for their rights; they've been fighting for their rights for hundreds of years - but not reaching to us and educating us. Look; cultural differences is something that we have to educate our self with each other.
DEMBY: Oh, my God. This is going to be real rocky - real, real rocky.
FADEL: Yeah. You know, he has been here for decades. So, you know, I said to him, you've been here 30 years; you should know something about this. But he told me, look; I'm a Palestinian immigrant who's had to teach people about my cause as a person with no homeland and then, after 9/11, about Islam, when he and his family were targeted for their faith, their ethnicity. So in his mind, other communities should do that for him.
But what was really most stunning for me was listening to Wadi, a Palestinian American Muslim who deals with discrimination, oppression in his own right - listening to him start to recognize his own prejudice. And it's something I've heard few Arabs interrogate - at least the ones that I grew up around.
M WADI: You know what? It is in our heart by design, without us knowing that we have this, as a Muslim Arab community. Whether people going to like it or not, we have this in our heart. It's not just something Lianne said. Maybe Lianne was - got caught.
FADEL: He said he thought about a word sometimes used for Black people when he was growing up in Jordan and Kuwait, Abeed (ph).
DEMBY: Abeed (ph).
FADEL: Yeah. So it's Arabic, and it means slaves.
M WADI: If you would tell me nicely, did you ever use it, I would be lying if I said no. But did I use this word to discriminate or be racist? Definitely no. I used it because of the common word and phrase that I learned. I've been raised to use it.
DEMBY: OK. So instead of saying Black person or African person, he would just call them slaves.
FADEL: So, yeah. He says now he gets it. Now he knows it's akin to the N-word, and it goes against his family values.
DEMBY: OK. So this goes against his family values. He wants to be part of the solution. And we know he called on one of the most prominent Black Muslims in Minneapolis for help, which I have to say I feel some type of way about this expectation that Makram El-Amin, the Black Muslim leader we were talking about, is just going to drop everything and teach him. Teach me how to do better.
FADEL: Yeah, that wasn't lost on El-Amin. This crisis - it's the first time Wadi had ever been to his house. And keeping the door open, it wasn't a decision he came to lightly. He hasn't forgiven, but he is willing to help with a path to redemption because he told me mercy, redemption - it's what his faith teaches, something we all will seek at some point. But no one gets redemption for nothing.
MERAJI: So the lingering question for me is, what did Imam Makram El-Amin say to Majdi Wadi after he got this phone call? What did he say to help him try and redeem himself and his family for all this?
EL-AMIN: Welcome to my humble abode.
FADEL: Thank you.
EL-AMIN: Please, have a seat. Yes.
FADEL: Thank you so much.
So when a producer and I last met with Imam Makram El-Amin, we're sitting on his porch, a picture of the late Malcolm X hanging in the window behind him. And he told me this is what he asked for in a written memorandum of understanding.
EL-AMIN: We wanted that he be a strategic, committed partner to bringing these conversations to the Muslim community, this anti-Blackness in the Muslim community. You can't be on the sideline. You got to come all the way in. And you've got to champion this with us now.
FADEL: What does that mean?
EL-AMIN: That means, put his money where his mouth is.
MERAJI: Put his money where his mouth is.
FADEL: Yeah. And I can't say the dollar amount El-Amin asked for in that pledge, but it's sizable and earmarked to do what we heard El-Amin say he wanted to do with his organization earlier, address the legacy of redlining, disinvestment in Black communities. And the pledge also asked Wadi to open a branch of HolyLand in north Minneapolis.
EL-AMIN: I live in a community that needs jobs. Bring that wonderful business model over here. Train people to hire from here. Do some profit sharing with your employees from over here. Let it become a co-op so that the better you do, the community benefits from here. That's different. That's game-changing. That's game-changing. That says more than I'm sorry.
FADEL: Then he wants Wadi to push to have real conversations about how to combat anti-Blackness within the Arab community, where he's had a stellar reputation.
EL-AMIN: Many of them look at him in a sense of pride. Like, hey, this is our guy. You know, he's the American dream.
FADEL: But the key, El-Amin tells me, is once Wadi does use his money, his social capital...
EL-AMIN: Don't try to take credit for it. Don't try to step in and lead it. You need to be a support. We know what's needed here.
DEMBY: So invest in Makram's nonprofit. And invest in other Black businesses in north Minneapolis, the Black neighborhood. Bring HolyLand to north Minneapolis. And maybe create a co-op and offer training to people in that community.
MERAJI: And don't put yourself in front as the leader. I'm also hearing that part as don't expect praise. Don't expect all that good press you're used to (laughter). That is quite an ask.
DEMBY: I'm saying.
FADEL: Yeah. It is an ask, you know? And Wadi told me he's ready to be that person, to make this his top priority. He's been writing down his thoughts. And they're actually printed out in front of him when we're talking, things he's thought through this journey of self-reflection. And he reads one.
M WADI: Because you did something wrong in the past does not mean you cannot advocate against it now. It doesn't make you hypocrite. You just grew.
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MERAJI: So Leila, the question is, has Majdi Wadi signed Makram El-Amin's memorandum of understanding?
FADEL: The answer is, no. He has convened a group of Arab Muslim businessmen to join him, to educate themselves fight anti-Blackness. And he says he's implementing racial bias training for HolyLand employees. But that pledge, he hasn't signed it.
DEMBY: Yeah. That sounds like the playbook. So what does Imam El-Amin think of the fact that he hasn't signed this memorandum?
FADEL: Yeah. So he told me he does believe Majdi Wadi's genuine. He also knows he's hemorrhaging money right now. But that path to redemption that he talks about, he says it won't happen without action. And in this case, he's talking about a monetary investment. On the day we're recording this, I did get an email from Wadi saying his company started a charitable fund. Where that money will go? - still not clear.
EL-AMIN: If nothing ever happens with this, I think it's going to fracture the community more, the Muslim community. This is just a microcosm of the whole society. If no real reform or whatever comes out of this here, then we're on a downward spiral.
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MERAJI: After the break, we're going to talk to Rami Nashashibi. He's been working for years to get Arab Muslim businessowners to treat their Black clientele with respect. And he doesn't shy away from being provocative.
RAMI NASHASHIBI: After the killing of George Floyd and the uprisings and the riots, I saw Palestinian-owned businesses, you know, in places like the South Side of Chicago being protected by the managers and store owners with firearms that were explicitly intended to intimidate the residents around them.
How different, really, is the image of settlers who, in the context of the West Bank, are often protected by armed Israeli Defense Forces? How different is that from, you know, store owners who may legally occupy, according to the laws of capitalism, a plot of land in the heart of a Black community that they don't live in, that they are not invested in, that they don't support? I kind of saw that that visual analogy was important to make to challenge our community to think, well, what sort of practices would make that analogy absolutely absurd?
MERAJI: We're going to have more from Rami. But first, we got to go to this break.
DEMBY: Don't go nowhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NASHASHIBI: Rami Nashashibi.
MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.
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DEMBY: Rami Nashashibi is a community organizer. He runs the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, or the acronym is IMAN. We - people love acronyms in CODE SWITCH.
DEMBY: He identifies as a Palestinian American Muslim.
NASHASHIBI: Grandson of Palestinian refugees from 1948, who settled in the South Side of Chicago at a time when very few Palestinian families were here.
MERAJI: Rami's been working with IMAN for years to get corner store owners in Chicago - a lot of them Arab and Muslim - to be more integrated into the Black neighborhoods they're running their businesses in.
DEMBY: Yeah. Listening to this, Shereen, it reminds me so much of, like, the dynamics of the corner stores around me growing up. In South Philly, we called them Chinese stores or papi shops.
MERAJI: Chinese stores or papi shops. So papi - like, I'm supposed to assume that they're Latinx-owned.
DEMBY: Right. Exactly.
MERAJI: That seems really derogatory 'cause I'm sure...
DEMBY: Yeah (laughter).
MERAJI: ...Folks are saying Chinese stores, and they have no idea where folks are from.
DEMBY: Yeah, exactly. They could've been Korean. They could've been Vietnamese. And, obviously, it's telling that people - like, the stores are being described by the assumed ethnicities of the people who run them, like, because for the people in my neighborhood in South Philly, that was probably the most contact we had in our very segregated Black neighborhood with, like, non-Black immigrants. And so there was all these tensions just in the little exchanges in the stores about, you know, cheap but still overpriced fares through the plexiglass. And it went both directions, right? Like, the store owners were snippy with the customers; the customers were suspicious of the store owners. It was just a mess.
But I digress. Shereen, you spoke to Rami Nashashibi about his work in Chicago and his connection to Makram El-Amin and Majdi Wadi in Minneapolis.
MERAJI: I did. And he's been on the phone with those two and also going back and forth to Minneapolis, trying to help them sort this mess out. But to your point, I did want to know more about his corner store campaign. You know, what has he been asking Arab Muslim store owners to do to change their business practices?
NASHASHIBI: Some of those steps are fairly simple. I mean, it's - how do you talk to residents in a way that kind of lifts them up and celebrates them as they come into your store, as opposed to contributing to the feeling that they're being watched and surveilled and those types of thing? Are you walking into a dignified business where you feel dignified? Are you walking into something that looks like an extension of the prison industrial complex, where you're having to negotiate for a bottle of milk behind 3 inches of bulletproof glass and degraded by having to point toward something? And, you know, those types of interactions - how to mitigate those things by simply changing the layout of the store, what you offer in the store, your hiring practices.
MERAJI: How have you gotten Arab corner store owners, specifically, to recognize their anti-Blackness?
NASHASHIBI: There was a hip-hop artist here in Chicago - he's still around - by the name of Mikkey Halsted. He had a really controversial track called the "Liquor Store" out. You know, it really blatantly confronted some of the practices of the liquor store and the Arab-owned liquor store explicitly. There was a line in there - something along the lines of, you know, I heard the owner say, as-salaam alaykum, but if he follow the Quran, why the F he selling bacon?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIQUOR STORE")
MIKKEY HALSTED: (Singing) I ride through the white hood. I don't see you. Why you ain't got no stores there? White people drink, too. Where do you live? Where your kids go to school? You open up there, too? Or are we just the fools? I know that you think that we stupid, and you feel like we clowns, but we reserve the right to shut your ass down. This what used to be the...
DEMBY: Yo (laughter). Wow.
MERAJI: Yeah. Not mincing words.
DEMBY: I mean...
MERAJI: Yeah. When Rami said this track was controversial, Gene, I think that might be an understatement.
MERAJI: He did say really controversial. So maybe, like, you add an extra really - really, really controversial. So Mikkey Halsted calls these liquor store owners leeches. In the video, an Arab store owner has a gun. He's really sinister-looking. There's a line in the rap that says, he shot a 10-year-old just because they wanted juice.
DEMBY: Wow. That is obviously very reminiscent of the circumstances under which Latasha Harlins was killed in what was then South Central, now South LA back in 1991.
MERAJI: Yeah. And the Arab community in Chicago was absolutely outraged at this portrayal of them, and Rami told me they made it known. But Rami decided, I'm going to use this really, really controversial track as a jumping-off point for public conversations between Arab store owners and the Black residents who frequented their businesses.
NASHASHIBI: So we did a whole series of things like that over a number of years. And many of the store owners were coming from Palestinian backgrounds. We were able to have a very honest conversation with their own experience of oppression, think about their sets of practices and experiences through the filter of their experience as Palestinians in, you know, the West Bank or Gaza or wherever they may have been coming from. We were able to generate significant identification not only with the larger African American community but a real honest set of conversations about racist practices and what those look like.
MERAJI: So the work that you were doing with Makram El-Amin, it was around this - right? - bringing this initiative to Minneapolis. Had those conversations already started between corner store owners in Minneapolis and the community?
NASHASHIBI: I think I called him initially because I saw in the first video, the first video that came out, that graphic, gut-wrenching eight-minute-40-second moment there was a probably 30-second clip within that that has what was clearly a young Arab dude coming out of the store.
DEMBY: And Rami is obviously talking there about the video that captured the police officer with his knee on George Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
MERAJI: A quick reminder that the call to the police came from a corner store called Cub Foods. We talked about that earlier. The owner is Palestinian. So Rami tells me he calls up Makram El-Amin, who he's known for years, to figure out, how are we going to address this? And Makram him tells him...
NASHASHIBI: There's another Palestinian owner of a set of businesses whose extraordinarily successful, who's in the thick of another emerging controversy right now because of a set of tweets that had surfaced from his daughter.
MERAJI: That's Majdi Wadi, who maybe is sincere about wanting to make amends. But, you know, I know there's a lot of people who are listening to this who are probably like, hmm, he did call on the most prominent African American Muslim in Minneapolis to help him out. Maybe he just wanted some cover. Or maybe he just wanted somebody to save his reputation and that was the person to turn to.
NASHASHIBI: There was undoubtedly a part of that that did lead him to probably reach out to Makram as someone who he can turn to. The fact is, though, this - all of us can probably relate to moments when we are facing it, when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan, so to speak. We are on our knees in intense sincerity. In fact, there's a verse that talks about the people who are lost at sea and when the wave is about to overwhelm them and overcome them, they turn to God. And the expression is (non-English language spoken) they turn to God with the most intensely sincere prayers and invocations. And when that wave subsides and you're back to shore, it's just like, man, you never called on God in the first place. You're back to your wanton ways. And so there is part of that that is very just being human.
Now, our interest in facilitating any type of reconciliation or rapprochement with him and the broader community would be really on the basis of what it meant ultimately for building real Black institutional-led power and strength in places like Minneapolis, whether that was led by Makram or others within the African American community. This was something that required much more institutional commitment towards the larger types of conditions that I was explaining to Majdi that our community has never really taken seriously. It is still unfair on some level, even acknowledging anti-Black racism and the store owners, not to look at the larger socioeconomic context that these stores are operating in. The Palestinian immigrant or refugee is not responsible for creating the conditions through which he's operating in in most cases.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NASHASHIBI: I certainly see a lot of beautiful aspects of our community. I believe in the type of intervention that Makram is making with Majdi. I'm not cynical about it. I think it comes from a beautiful part of our tradition that is not only about calling out but calling up as long as that's what's driving it and it's driven with a vision for true justice and equity. We're going to be there. And I'm personally going to be committed and standing with him every step of the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERAJI: That's our show. If you want to put some faces to some names, we've got photos of Majdi Wadi and Makram El-Amin on the CODE SWITCH blog.
DEMBY: This episode you're listening to was edited by you, Shereen. Strage (ph) girl, well done. It was produced by Kumari Devarajan with field production help from Liz Baker and Gabriela Saldivia.
MERAJI: Shoutout to the rest of the CS familia - Karen Grigsby Bates, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Natalie Escobar, Jess Kung, L.A. Johnson and Steve Drummond.
DEMBY: Next week, because The Reckoning - capital T, capital R - is all inclusive...
MERAJI: It is.
DEMBY: ...We're sticking to the theme of anti-Blackness within non-Black communities, even when they're brown people.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Anti-Blackness is actually a part of Asian American racial formation in a ton of ways.
MERAJI: Lots to talk about next week on CODE SWITCH. Until then, remember, we have a huge back catalogue, so if you're new to CODE SWITCH and want to binge, we got you. We also have a newsletter, and it's good to sign up. Go to npr.org/newsletters with an S. You'll find us there. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.
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