Callous Disrespect Taints a ‘Sacred Day’

Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2008

It was such a cowardly way to mark the birthday of such a courageous man.

After the parade honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday afternoon, a mob of teenagers swarmed a 7-Eleven store just off the parade route on King Boulevard. They grabbed candy, cookies, sodas, chips—ransacking the store in the process—and ran out without paying.

The commotion lasted less than a minute. The damage was minor. No one was hurt.

Unless you count the heartache felt by the store’s owner, Sundeep Bhatia, as he watched the ugly spectacle.

“Every day we have shoplifters,” Bhatia told me. “But for these kids to come from the parade and do this kind of stuff, on such a sacred day as this . . .”

Bhatia came here from India 20 years ago and spent 10 years working two jobs to save enough money to buy a 7-Eleven store in Inglewood, then another on King Boulevard near Crenshaw. He’s reconciled himself to the high cost of doing business in inner-city Los Angeles.

At the King Boulevard store, he spent $82,000 on security guards last year. He has 16 surveillance cameras streaming video to a backroom monitor. He contracts with a security firm that can summon the LAPD instantly and broadcasts periodic alerts over the store’s loudspeaker to let customers know they’re being watched.

Still, most of the time, he and his employees watch helplessly as shoplifters victimize the store. “Sometimes you try to stop them and they threaten you,” he said. “It’s not worth a confrontation.”

{snip}

I visited his store Wednesday and watched a security-monitor replay of Monday’s commotion.

On the screen, a horde of teenagers seemed to materialize out of nowhere, dashing between cars in the strip mall parking lot and pouring through the store’s double doors. The youths fanned out and swept down the aisles, knocking things off shelves, stuffing their pockets, shoving things under their baggy jackets.

An employee rushed over to block the entrance, to keep more from coming in. He was shoved out of the way by the raucous crowd, as the teenagers burst through the door to leave.

I counted at least 30 kids inside. They were clearly acting on a plan; there were too many and they moved too quickly toward their targets for their actions to be random. They seemed to be in high spirits, shouting and laughing the whole time. Most were boys, but a few girls were among them.

And though it was hard to tell on the grainy video, all the kids I could see looked black to me. And so, I took it personally.

{snip}

Still, it was painfully ironic to see the crowd of rowdy black teens, likely fresh from the parade, flaunting their disrespect so brazenly.

Bhatia told me he spent the morning watching televised tributes to King and the afternoon among the multicultural throngs watching the parade. “Everybody was so happy, everything was so nice. Then afterward, this,” he said, shaking his head as he gestured toward the images on the security screen.

{snip}

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