After a gunman unloaded his weapon and killed a man last week in front of Salim Mohnsin’s gas station and convenience store—a shooting caught on camera that went viral on social media—the city shuttered Mohnsin’s East Garfield Park business, with no signs of reopening.
Now, in the wake of the recent the gun violence that has rattled the public and prompted city leaders to vow action, some Arab business owners say they’re being unfairly targeted and closed by city agencies when the violent crime happens near their shops and gas stations, even when the crime is totally unrelated.
“We’re an easy target,” said Ray Hanania, a member of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, which held a press conference Monday to highlight what they say is unfair treatment by the city. “Any time it’s an Arab store (where a shooting occurs), we’re closed.”
In the last three weeks, organizers said at least 10 Arab- and Muslim-owned businesses have been cited and shut down. This recent crackdown follows a similar sweep one last summer that led to numerous businesses being cited and shut down for city violations.
The city shut down Mohsin’s Citgo station last week just one day after a deadly May 3 shooting in front of their business that quickly went viral on social media because the killer used what appeared to be an AK-47.
“We’ve done everything we can do,” Mohsin said
The strategy of using city agencies to cite and close businesses that are a magnet for criminals and violence is a longtime anti-violence strategy employed by numerous mayoral administrations. The closures are often joint between police, the building department and the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
But Saad Malley, a gas station owner for over 40 years, said gas station owners can’t be held responsible for violent people who happen to show up as customers. At the meeting, he recalled a 25-year-old incident where customer at his gas station mistakenly opened his trunk revealing a dead body.
“This guy had to stop in to get some gas and by accident he pulled the wrong lever,” he said. “If he didn’t need gas, he probably would have taken him to a cemetery or park, or dumped the body in the lake or something.”
Nearly all of the owners present Monday said they were always helpful to police, who often check their surveillance system for crime footage. They also said they act correctly and report troublemakers despite the danger it possess to them.
Some wondered whether Arab or Muslim businesses in poor neighborhoods were being scapegoated.
“We’ve been targeted by inspectors and the city of Chicago. Any crime happening in the city, they come into the business. If it happens close to the business, they blame the business,” said Hassan Nijem, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. “What they do is shut off the businesses. They don’t fight crime, they fight the businesses.”
While organizers said about 10 businesses had reached out to say they were being affected by the city sweeps, only five owners attended, fearful of reprisals for speaking out.
The indefinite closures means a loss of revenue for the owners and a loss of affordable stores in already struggling neighborhoods, they said.
A number of aldermen expected to appear at the press conference were late no-shows due to City Council work. But Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, who did attend, said he pledged to push the city toward transparency and create a clear system for how cited or closed businesses can reopen.
“The problems comes when you have a (city) strike force…you don’t know how it’s operating and really what’s the due process for these business owners that are impacted? We want to put together a process for due process,” Villegas said.
Neither the mayor’s office, nor police responded to requests for comment, but in separate statements, a spokeswoman with the city’s business affairs and consumer protection department said the agency hadn’t issued any cease and desist orders to gas stations in the last month.
The organizers said that the city is attempting to align owners like Mohsin by disclosing his record.
“And that’s the worst part about it,” Hanania said. “It makes us look bad when they do this to us and we’re not. We’re good people. That store pays a lot of money in taxes.”