Posted on February 6, 2012

Racial Tensions Flare in Protest of South Dallas Gas Station

Steve Thompson, Dallas News, February 5, 2012

Marcus Phillips was 26 and fresh out of prison for several robberies when he committed his final crime.

One morning just before dawn, Phillips grabbed the cash register at a South Dallas gas station. The clerk picked up a shotgun and ordered Phillips down.

Phillips ran from the store and across the parking lot, the cash register under his arm, the clerk not far behind. There was a struggle, more running, then another struggle. Then came a warning shot and a final, fatal blast.

Most of those now protesting the Diamond Shamrock Kwik Stop on Martin Luther King Boulevard never knew Phillips or even his name. But his death in 2010 has become a symbol in their fight to shut the station down. The dispute revolves around issues of race: Phillips was black, and the clerk — and the store’s owner — are of Korean descent.

The protests are held six days a week and are organized by top leaders of the local NAACP and the Nation of Islam, among other groups. Their complaints: That the Kwik Stop, owned by a Korean immigrant, charges unreasonable prices and disrespects black customers.

The owner, Thomas Pak, says he never intended to disrespect anyone.

“I pay my taxes. I work hard to feed my family. That’s the bottom line,” said Pak, 40. “I don’t have a complex about race. I’m not a racist. I’m just trying to follow the American dream.”

The legacy of conflict between Asian-American merchants and customers in depressed African-American neighborhoods dates to well before its depiction in Hollywood films such as Menace II Society and Do the Right Thing.

Now the narrative is playing out in Dallas, where, by coincidence, a national group of Korean-American leaders expects to join with the NAACP this week to announce a formal agreement on common goals.

The purpose of the agreement is, in part, to prevent the sort of tension now escalating around the Kwik Stop in South Dallas.


“You cannot cross this picket line,” Dallas NAACP president Juanita Wallace told a taxi driver one recent afternoon as he pulled into the Kwik Stop.

Her sign said: “Killed a man 4 stealing.” Fellow protesters held other signs: “They’re using the n-word” and “Exploitation.”

“This is an official protest,” Wallace continued. “This man does price-gouging. He killed a man. We need you to move on.”


The protesters sign up for two-hour shifts between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. each day except Sunday. Sometimes it’s just one or two protesters and other times a dozen or more.


The 2010 shooting was the first incident recounted by protesters.

However, the boycott started only after an encounter between Pak and a local Nation of Islam leader, Jeffery Muhammad, student minister of the nearby Muhammad Mosque No. 48. He walked into the Kwik Stop one day in early December.

Pak and Muhammad disagree on what happened. Muhammad says he simply asked to charge $5 in gas on his debit card. Pak says Muhammad immediately started berating and accusing him of exploiting the community.

Muhammad says he talked of exploitation only after Pak told him there was a $10 minimum for debit card purchases. Pak says he imposed the limit only to get rid of Muhammad, who Pak thought was spoiling for a fight.

They agree on this: Once things got heated, Pak called Muhammad a racial slur. Pak says he used the word only after Muhammad issued his own epithet; Muhammad denies using any slurs.

“I didn’t expect it was going to explode like this,” Pak said of the encounter. “It was a personal argument.”

Muhammad, 44, who was appointed to his post in 1994 by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, says Pak must go. So should other Asian-American merchants in black neighborhoods, he says.

“They are just the latest in a long line of people who have come to this country — like Jews, Italians, Indians and now Asians — who have sucked the blood of and exploited the black community,” Muhammad said.


Pak was a teenager when he came to the United States with his parents in 1990. He became a citizen and says he served in the Army National Guard from 1994 to 2000.


Pak, who lives with his wife and a 9-year-old daughter in Coppell, said he has worked 20-hour days in the past to keep his business afloat. He and three employees, two of whom are black, have become terrified amid the protest.


Pak said that he was wrong to use a racial slur with Muhammad, and he regrets it. But he also said he is frequently the target of slurs while at the store and often sees black people use the epithet on each other.

He calls “nonsense” the allegation that he is a racist.


City Council member Carolyn Davis, whose district includes the Kwik Stop, counts herself among the protesters. She called during a recent council meeting for the city to scrutinize the business.

Since late December, Pak says, city inspectors have visited him twice. He remembers only three other inspections in the previous 10 years he has owned the store.


The Korean American Coalition and the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce have stepped in to help, concerned about heightened animosity toward Asian-American business owners.


The recent deaths of Korean-American shopkeepers have put that community on edge. In late 2009, Kee-Sun Chung was shot and killed when two masked men tried to rob his east Oak Cliff doughnut shop. In July, another east Oak Cliff store owner, Jin Kim Ha, was shot in a robbery at closing time and died at a hospital.

Eugene Yu, national president of the Federation of Korean Associations, flew to Dallas from Georgia to help resolve Pak’s predicament. {snip}

Yu, also a member of the NAACP, will be among the leaders attending a Korean-American leadership conference in Dallas this weekend. There, he expects his federation’s new agreement with the NAACP will be announced. National NAACP leaders say one of their officials, perhaps their president, will speak at the event.

“I’m not saying that store owner did right … I hope he’s learned lessons from this incident,” Yu said. “I can see these people are angry. But we will do anything to plead with them to please give Tommy Pak a second chance.”

Protest leaders say that won’t happen. Muhammad says there can be only one resolution: “That man needs to leave our community, because he is no longer welcome.”