Corner stores can be hotspots for violence in majority-Black neighborhoods. Here's how one faith-based organization is working to change that.

  • Immigrant-owned corner stores in low-income majority-Black neighborhoods have often been sites of conflict and police violence.
  • Business Insider spoke with Shamar Hemphill, deputy director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, which works largely with American corner store owners to deter conflict and avoid situations like the one that led to the police killing of George Floyd.
  • On May 25, police were called to corner store owned by a Palestinian American after Floyd was suspected of trying to use counterfeit money. Floyd later died in custody after a police officer knelt on his neck. 
  • IMAN builds relationships by facilitating conversations between Arab American store owners and residents of Black-majority neighborhoods.
  • Hemphill emphasized IMAN's faith-based approach, which involves applying principles from Islam towards investing in the community and advocating for restorative justice.
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The corner store clerk was new.

If he'd known owner Mahmoud Abumayyaleh's policy not to call the police over counterfeit cash, George Floyd would likely still be alive. But on May 25, the clerk called police when he suspected Floyd of using counterfeit money. Later Floyd died in custody after a police officer knelt on his neck. 

Abumayyaleh, a Palestinian American, has since spoken out against Floyd's death and in support of Black Lives Matter, and many corner stores that operate in majority-Black neighborhoods have similar policies to Abumayyaleh's.

In majority-Black neighborhoods, immigrant-owned stores like Abumayyaleh's have long been sites of conflict and misunderstanding. But the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, is one organization working to change that.

IMAN, which means "faith" in Arabic, was founded in 1997 to address relations between Arab Muslim immigrant storeowners and Black-majority neighborhood residents in Chicago's South Side. Although IMAN operates primarily in Chicago and Atlanta, the problems it works to solve are common in urban areas across the country.

IMAN deputy director Shamar Hemphill told Business Insider that the organization's work has long centered around its corner store initiatives. "We wanted to create a model that would allow stores to really think about, first and foremost, racial reconciliation," Hemphill said.

That model is centered around creating conversations between store owners and community members when conflict or violent incidents occur. 

"As business owners in the city, we used to look at Detroit as just where we do business, and we'd go home to our suburbs," Nasser Beydoun, a Detroit business owner and chairman of the Arab Civil Rights League told Business Insider. While IMAN doesn't have a Detroit office, it has partnered with anti-racist organization MuslimARC for initiatives in the city. "There was a tendency in our community to think we were white and not a minority. I think that our shared history and our appreciation for the plight of the African-American community really didn't come to understanding until after 9/11."

Beydoun said that the relationship improved over the years due to outreach and relationship building efforts by leaders of both communities. "The shift happened because the leadership decided that we needed to get to know each other," Beydoun said.

Hemphill shares the example of a Chicago store owner whose store was broken into after repeatedly running into trouble with the community. The day after, IMAN's organizers helped lead an open conversation between the store owner and 40 to 50 neighborhood residents. Hemphill said the conversation focused on shared histories and shared narratives between Black Americans and Arab Americans.

"There were people who would come in the store for 15, 20 years, and never even understand where the storeowner came from," Hemphill said. "That was the first time that store owners that had ever shared his story with residents."

The workshop helped residents and the store owner connect deeply on a personal level for the first time, Hemphill said. And after it was over, the store owner immediately hired three of the residents who attended the workshop as employees. 

Hemphill and Beydoun said that in recent years, significant progress has been made through relationship building. And Amer Zahr, a comedian, writer, and adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law told Business Insider that the focus should be on examples of solidarity between Black and Arab Americans rather than examples of conflict.

"Arab American institutions and organizations have been very clear in the last few weeks of where we stand in the Black Lives Matter movement that we stand squarely in solidarity with the Black community," Zahr said.

Zahr points specifically to displays of solidarity between Palestinians and Black Lives Matter protesters, drawing a parallel between the death of George Floyd and the death of Iyad Halaq, an autistic Palestinian man Israeli police shot and killed outside his special needs center in Jerusalem just days after Floyd's death. In the weeks following both murders, there have been Black Lives Matter protests in Palestine and murals of George Floyd painted on border walls.

"No two things are the same, but we see the parallels between the experience of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and the experience of Black Americans living under systemic racism here. You'll see it periodically on the news where people are either holding Palestinian flags or saying Palestinians stand with Black Lives Matter or wearing Palestinian scarves when they go to the protests [in America]," Zahr said.

IMAN's approach to reconciliation is ultimately a faith-based one. Not all Arab Americans are Muslim — many are Christian, Druze, or Jewish, among other creeds — but many of the store owners and residents IMAN works with are. One of IMAN's driving principles is the Islamic concept of ihsan, or the divine duty to strive for perfection. 

Part of ihsan as IMAN applies it, Hemphill said, is fighting for restorative justice. That means becoming part of the solution.

"We're agitating storeowners to, in this moment, not be people who just self-identify as Muslim, but to really live that out in the way they practice their business, to be advocates for restorative justice in their neighborhoods at a time like this," Hemphill said.

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