Booze, Blacks, Bulletproof Glass: Did City Council Botch Approach to Racially Charged “Stop-and-Go” Drama?

Kerith Gabriel & Max Marin, Philadelphia Weekly, December 19, 2017

City Council set out last month to bring the city’s legion of “stop-and-go” beer delis in line with state regulations. For nearly two decades, local legislators have been trying to put pressure on these establishments that sell takeout alcohol — and in some cases, shots of liquor — while skirting state laws.

But after Councilwoman Cindy Bass inserted a controversial provision to remove bulletproof glass from these businesses, the seemingly unoffensive bill turned into a flashpoint debate, igniting deep-seated tensions between African American residents and Asian American business owners.

“They aren’t delis,” Bass said before a packed Council chamber last Thursday. “They are places to buy drugs to get high … indoor open-air drug markets masquerading as restaurants.”

Testifying against the bill, mostly Asian American business owners, some carrying signs of bullet holes weeping blood, recounted violence committed against them and their families in their stores. On the other side of the aisle, African-American community leaders alleged that stop-and-gos preyed on the poor and addicted, and fostered a hostile community environment.

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Philly’s war on the stop-and-go dates back to at least 2004, when Council and the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia agreed to reforms that would clean up the business model. Store owners, according to Bass, agreed to hire their own security guards, take alcohol management training programs, and cease the sale of drug-related paraphernalia such as glass stemware and rolling papers.

But the city has little sway with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which holds the reins on restaurant liquor licenses. Council’s agreement with AALBA wasn’t legally binding for store owners. And over the years, according to news reports, even booze-selling delis hit with multiple code violations by the PLCB have had little trouble renewing their restaurant liquor licenses.

So Bass re-upped the fight with a focus on nuisance complaints. She went after them for non-compliance about seating and serving food. Then she came for the bulletproof glass.

The reasoning behind that, according to the stop-and-go owners, was as transparent as the glass itself.

“The rationale is to drive us out of the community,” Adam Xu, president of the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia, told Philadelphia Weekly after a demonstration outside of City Hall last week.

{snip} Before its final passage, however, Council members amended the language to have the Department of Licensing and Inspections issue regulations for “the continued use and removal” of glass no earlier than 2018. It’s important to note that this only applies stop-and-gos that operate under “large establishment” food licenses, which requires an establishment to serve food, have at least 30 seats for patrons and at least one bathroom — requisites that many such businesses have skirted around for years. If these businesses don’t get up to code by 2018, L&I spokesperson Karen Guss says the agency would issue a violation. Under no circumstances would protective barriers be forcefully removed.

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As PlanPhilly reported, tensions between African American communities and Asian-Americans trace back partially to urban redlining. As black communities were historically denied access to money lending streams, better capitalized immigrant merchants were able to open up shop in otherwise segregated neighborhoods.

Bass pitched a case that bulletproof glass was an indignity and a glaring sign of mistrust of African Americans. Others agreed, despite the proliferation of such protective glass in other businesses all over the city. But observers say the issue highlighted a long tradition of anti-black sentiment with which Asian Americans have their own struggle.

For Asian Americans, according to community leaders interviewed for this story, the issue of bulletproof glass is also intertwined with issues of language access and strained relations with the Philadelphia Police Department.

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Meirong Liu just doesn’t know how it’s going to work for the better.

Directly across the street from her Chinese-American restaurant, Great Wall, situated under the El tracks on Kensington Avenue, sits the Steak-N-Beer restaurant and deli, a stop-and-go that features hot food, bench and table seating, in addition to wall-to-wall refrigerators fully stocked with a variety of beers and wine coolers.

Steak-N-Beer’s heavily bulletproofed front counter offers .5L bottles of Mad Dog 20-20 and an assortment of tobacco products. Liu said the store and stores around it are frequented by “the same type of people,” who visit her restaurant, a tiny store with no available seating in which food orders, its delivery and the exchange of money is distributed through a winding display of Plexiglas, making it impossible for hands on either side to ever touch.

For her and her relative Renjie Liu, both of Chinese descent, the glass offers sanctuary. In mixed-race Kensington, Liu explains that the glass isn’t personal. But operating her establishment in this maligned section of the city wouldn’t be possible without it.

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{snip} according to Asa Khalif, the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter who also owns a number of delis throughout the city, there is one discernible difference.

“The Plexiglas in a ‘poppy store’ as we call [bodegas], they are not as armed or bulletproofed as a lot of these Korean stores are,” Khalif said in a phone interview with PW.

{snip} “There are bodegas that don’t even have the glass and you can interact with the owner. There is just no interaction with the customer or the community in a lot of these Korean stores. You have Dominican stores hiring within the community and live and participate in the community and aid their Latino brothers and sisters. I have never gone to a ‘poppy store’ as we call them and seen an employee giving free shots [of liquor] or giving shots to underage kids. This is commonplace in Korean stores and this is much bigger than the Plexiglas.”

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