911 Call Fuels Debate About Store's Role In Floyd's Death
NOEL KING, HOST:
Last week, an employee at an Arab American-owned corner store called the police on a black man, George Floyd. A police officer killed Floyd outside of that store. And protests erupted, first in Minneapolis, and then they spread. NPR's Adrian Florido has been reporting on the role that corner stores play in black neighborhoods. He talked to the man who owns that store in Minneapolis.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: His name is Mahmoud Abumayyaleh. And in the last week, he's been hounded by criticism over the 911 call that one of his store clerks made to report George Floyd for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. But in the south Minneapolis neighborhood surrounding Abumayyaleh's store, Cup Foods, it's hard to find anyone who will criticize him. In fact, almost everyone I spoke with in this largely black community said Abumayyaleh and his staff are known for not calling police.
MESH FIELDS: Some stores you go in, you know, they rushing you out, they watch you, make you feel uncomfortable. They don't there.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They never have.
FIELDS: They welcome you. Like I said, they know everybody name.
FLORIDO: Mesh Fields (ph) lives around the corner from the store.
FIELDS: If you need help with anything, they're willing to help you. So...
FLORIDO: Is most of the community supporting them, you think, around here?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
FIELDS: Yeah. Yep.
FLORIDO: That's been evident this week as the intersection outside Cup Foods, where George Floyd was arrested, has become a shrine. Hundreds of people come by every day. Abumayyaleh has been a constant presence, handing out food as neighbors, who call him Mike, have come up to give him a pandemic elbow bump. On Sunday, he was wearing a T-shirt that read, we can't breathe. He closed and boarded up his store after Floyd's death. But on Sunday, he invited me in.
MAHMOUD ABUMAYYALEH: Hi.
FLORIDO: It's a typical corner convenience mart and deli. And, he said, it's a lot more.
ABUMAYYALEH: We offer a lot of different services. We do a notary public. We do phone repairs. We do a lot of utility payments. We do bill payment. We do wire transfer. We pretty much do it all.
FLORIDO: He said Floyd had been a regular customer for about a year. He paid his phone bill at Cup Foods. He never caused any problems. But Abumayyaleh said that last Monday, Floyd presented a counterfeit bill to pay for some cigarettes.
ABUMAYYALEH: We don't call the police when counterfeit money is handed to us. We teach the clerks to let one of the owners know. And we deal with it directly and tell the patron that he can, you know, give us the money, or the authorities can be called.
FLORIDO: Abumayyaleh said he trained his staff to call police only if there's violence at the store.
ABUMAYYALEH: We've gotten, over the years, a lot of respect because of how we've been able to handle our situations in our store as long as violence isn't involved. And we've had a good reputation with that, also.
FLORIDO: Last Monday night, though, Abumayyaleh said a 17-year-old clerk who had worked at the store for six months decided to call 911. Less than two hours later, George Floyd was dead.
Do you wish that your staff member had not called the police that day?
ABUMAYYALEH: Yes, I do. I think if there was any way to have prevented it, that would have been a very good thing to happen. But unfortunately, he felt like that was the best course of action.
FLORIDO: Abumayyaleh said he's fired the clerk and plans to retrain his staff once he reopens. But he also said the people to blame for Floyd's death are the police.
ABUMAYYALEH: Abuse against black people and abuse of power and police brutality has to end.
FLORIDO: Because Abumayyaleh and many owners of corner stores in black neighborhoods are Arab American, this incident has led the community to ponder the store's role in Floyd's death. On social media, prominent Arab American activists have said it's an opportunity to examine how racism affects store owners' treatment of their black customers. Rami Nashashibi runs the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a Chicago group that trains the owners of corner stores to be allies of their black customers. He said Cup Foods appears to be such a place. Still...
RAMI NASHASHIBI: The call came from the store. The reality is many such calls happen among these type of stores, unfortunately.
FLORIDO: He said they're often perfunctory calls for trivial issues, but they can have huge consequences. George Floyd, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling - all killed outside convenience stores.
NASHASHIBI: When you call the police and you're interfacing with black men, yeah, the chances of violence and even death being as strong as they are would lead us to strongly encourage folks to think twice about ever calling the police in those sets of circumstances.
FLORIDO: Nashashibi is traveling to Minneapolis later this week and meeting with store owners to drive this message home.
Adrian Florido, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.