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Baltimore Unrest Reveals Tensions Between African-Americans And Asians


On one level, the unrest in Baltimore is very simple - one man died after his arrest. Police have not yet explained how it happened. And his fellow citizens want justice for Freddie Gray.


PROTESTERS: (Chanting) All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray. All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray.

INSKEEP: Since an outbreak of violence on Monday, the police chief has called the protests extremely peaceful. And the protests have spread to other cities. So that's the straightforward version of events.

The broader question is what's really happening in the more troubled neighborhoods of a majority-black city. Like any city, Baltimore has a legacy of segregation and a legacy of police violence. It also faces many class and economic differences. And those differences came to the surface during Monday's violence. In the Sandtown neighborhood, many Asian-owned businesses were targeted for destruction. NPR's Nurith Aizenman visited a street close to the scene of Freddie Gray's arrest where Asian shop owners are assessing the damage.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: At the hardware store on the corner of West North Avenue and North Pulaski Street, a repairman has come by to replace one of the windows, and he's having trouble getting the frame to fit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You can take something off it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What do you mean it's too tight?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's too - when we put it in the window...

AIZENMAN: The window was smashed Monday night at the height of the riot. Someone also threw a brick through the front door. But that's the extent of the damage. Yvonne Gordon works at the store. She says it was spared because it's owned by black people. As soon as the door was broken, a bunch of guys from the neighborhood jumped in front to stop the looters.

YVONNE GORDON: They was like, this is a black-owned store. And we're not going to tolerate it. So go ahead and move. Go on home somewhere 'cause we're not going to tolerate it.

AIZENMAN: But she says the Korean-owned shops on the block didn't get that protection.

GORDON: Those boys that stopped them from coming in knew he was a black-owned store. But in the same instance, they didn't go across the street to the Koreans to say don't come in.

AIZENMAN: Now, across Baltimore, lots of businesses owned by black people were vandalized. But on this particular stretch - picture three treeless blocks of row houses, a lot of them boarded up - the only shops that were targeted were ones owned by Asian immigrants - mostly Koreans. Gordon says she feels really sad about that. Like pretty much everyone who lives in the neighborhood, she's black, but she considers some of the Asian shopkeepers like family, like the older Korean man who's run a convenience store across the street for decades. Still, not everyone on the block feels that way.

TRAVIS FONSECA: It's almost like payback, I guess you could say.

AIZENMAN: Travis Fonseca is a tall, muscular 24-year-old hanging out on the corner. He says the looters were justified.

FONSECA: You know what I mean? For all of the unspoken things that has happened between those businesses and our people, I feel like it was payback. I don't feel like it was the most reasonable thing to do, but it's definitely justified.

AIZENMAN: Fonseca says while some of the rioting was prompted by anger at police over what happened to Freddie Gray, for many, it was a moment to vent frustration over what they see as economic injustice. This neighborhood is so poor. There are so few decent jobs. And the few businesses that do exist are mostly run by Asians. But Fonseca says they won't hire anyone from the neighborhood. They profit off of us, he says, but they give nothing back. He points to a storefront with a yellow sign that says Short Stop Mart.

FONSECA: I had to go to work one day. I needed just a plain, white shirt for this day because I didn't have my work shirt. I came into the store, I said, man, look, I get paid Friday. I buy at this store all the time. I just need to borrow a shirt until Friday. I'll come back here. You see me all the time.

AIZENMAN: He says they told him no. And it felt like a total rejection, like he was some stranger not worthy of trust.


AIZENMAN: Over at that Short Stop Mart, the manager, Tina Chen, is ankle-deep in broken glass. During the riot, this place was trashed.

TINA CHEN: They destroy everything - all the candy bar, you see the ATM machines, all the cigarette, all the baby formula is gone - everything.

AIZENMAN: Chen moved from China 10 years ago. She's worked here every day for the last three years since her father-in-law bought the place. She says she thought she got along with their customers. She had no idea tensions ran this deep. As she picks through the trash, people keep popping in.

CHEN: We're not open.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're closed?

CHEN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, they closed.

AIZENMAN: They marvel at the wreckage and offer condolences.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I am so sorry this happened to you all. You all are good peoples, too.

AIZENMAN: Chen gives a tight smile. Sure, they're nice to her face, she says. But these could be the same people who stole the baby formula off her shelves. A man knocks on the door asking for cigars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: You ain't got no Bullet?

CHEN: No, I told you I got nothing.

MAN #5: That's why they took everything.

AIZENMAN: That's why they took everything, he taunts, laughing. Chen flinches.

CHEN: You see? You can see how the people treat me, so - even when I'm in this situation, they still treat me like this.

AIZENMAN: So she says, now there's nobody I can trust. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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