CHICAGO: Alderman Raymond Lopez said on Monday that city council members are reviewing allegations made by more than 50 Arab American and Muslim small-business owners against Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city’s business inspection department.
At a press conference held at an Arab-owned business closed by the city for more than 52 days at 79th and Western on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Arab and Muslim business operators claimed that the city was intentionally seeking to shut down their businesses.
Arab store owners said that they believe Lightfoot is motivated in part by racism against Arabs and Muslims, but is also closing the stores in the mistaken belief that it might reduce the city’s skyrocketing street gang murder rate.
“Today I joined nearly two dozen business owners who feel they have been unfairly targeted by racist tactics supposedly focused on reducing gang violence in Chicago,” Lopez, the alderman of the 15th ward, told the gathering of 25 Arab and Muslim store owners.
“Sadly, two days after mayor Lightfoot declared that 9/11 gave rise to much anti-Arab hatred in America, she herself, in declaring war on gang terrorists, is also targeting Arab business owners in mostly African-American communities.”
He added: “Lightfoot is once again showing she does not understand how to address violence in a nuanced manner, instead choosing blanket policies that target entire demographics and play on local stereotypes.”
Last weekend, Chicago saw 56 shootings and eight fatalities. On the previous Labor Day weekend, 75 people were shot and eight killed, including one police officer. As of Sept. 1, 2021, Chicago police reported 524 gun-related deaths and 2,344 shootings.
Hassan Nijem, president of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, was joined at the press conference by 18 Arab, Asian and Muslim business owners whose stores have been closed for between one week and three months.
Closures are driven by a combination of “racism and the city’s uncontrolled and skyrocketing violence,” he said.
“This week, Americans joined together to commemorate one of the worst attacks on the US by foreign terrorists 20 years ago, and officials across the country, including here in Chicago, repeated their concerns that Americans should not take out their anger on Arabs or Muslims,” Nijem said.
“And yet, right here in Chicago, we believe that mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city have engaged in exactly that, targeting Arabs, Muslims and people who look Arab, including Asian Americans, and discriminating against them, singling us out for punishment and reprisal because of who we are.”
Nijem said the business owners are asking the city council to convene a special investigation into the actions of the mayor’s task force, arguing that in addition to harming business owners financially it is depriving the city, county and state of sales tax and gasoline tax revenues.
He said that the typical store owner is losing as much as $50,000 a month in revenue, much of which goes to the city in taxes, in addition to putting more than 300 employees out of work while the stores remain closed.
“We don’t know the full extent of how many stores are being closed, but it is widespread,” Nijem said, adding that he has spoken to about 50 business operators whose stores have been closed so far.
Requests for comment were directed to Lightfoot, Building Department commissioner Matthew Beaudet and inspector Marlene Hopkins, and Water Department inspector Thomas Lynch.
Victor Owoeye, Lightfoot’s deputy press secretary, said in a statement: “The city has been working closely with gas station owners to ensure compliance with the municipal code. Two weeks ago, a deputy mayor as well as several senior departmental leaders from the Department of Buildings, Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, and the Chicago Police Department hosted a round table for these very businesses. As a follow-up to the requests from the business owners, the city is providing business liaison teams and code checklists to businesses to engage on affirmative compliance.”
However, in responding to the initial request for comment, the officials inadvertently replied with the full email chain, including the department heads, and Owoeye, who told them: “My thoughts would be not to engage here. Any thoughts?”
But Nijem said that while the mayor’s staff met with some Arab and Muslim business leaders from Chicago’s suburbs, none met with the chamber or with any of the store owners who attended the press conference.
Several store owners, including Shihdeh Abu Khalil, who has been operating gas stations, said that the city previously worked with store owners to correct code violations without closing the outlets.
“The city of Chicago recently has been coming to gas stations and small businesses with the mindset to close the businesses down. We are not familiar with this,” Abu Khalil said.
“Before they used to come and consult with us, and advise us on how to fix different things. I am appealing to the mayor and those overseeing this situation to work with the business owners to correct any violations so we can open and do business in the city.”
Ayser Abu Shanab, who owned a gas station and grocery store, said that city inspectors first came to him and issued a series of citations on July 23, 2021.
“The task force gave us a list of violations that could have been corrected if they gave us some time. But they just decided to close us. We called them back on Aug. 13 and they came in and they added more violations from the initial one. We didn’t know anything about it and we could have fixed them before we called them,” Abu Shanab said.
“We didn’t know anything about any other violations besides what they gave us on paper. I had to visit the website of building permits and inspection records and find out 35 extra violations that were not on the initial one.”
Abu Shanab said that he has had no response to telephone calls or email queries to the inspection team.
Saad Malley said that his two gas stations are within one mile of other gas stations that have been targeted and closed by the authorities.
“Every day I come to work I am in fear that this task force will come and close us down with no prior notice,” he said.
“At stake is the livelihood of about 12 employees, myself and, of course, the neighborhood. We are a neighborhood gas station. All of the neighbors come to us for convenience. We are surprised that the city of Chicago is targeting minority-owned gas stations. And gas stations are an essential service.”
He added: “For some reason, the idea to close a gas station that is minority owned is seen as fighting crime. We do not control who comes to our gas stations any more than a hotel, hospital or restaurant controls who comes into their parking lot. We are asking that the city cease and desist this racially motivated attack on minority-owned gas stations and businesses.”
Nijem said that about 300 Arab-owned businesses could be affected by the city’s new policy to cite and close stores.