Immigrant Merchants and Law-and-Order Politics in DetroitRoundup
tags: crime, immigration, Detroit, urban history, ethnic history
Kenneth Alyass is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University. His research is focused on crime, criminalization, and criminal justice in the twentieth-century United States. He is at work on a dissertation that is tentatively titled “From the Motor City to the Murder City: The Urban Crisis in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
On April 1, 1966, during a rainy Friday evening, near downtown Detroit Habiba Kasgorgis made her way to her husband’s store at 7503 Brush Street. Jubrail Kasgorgis was a balding, middle-aged man, who immigrated to the United States from Iraq a decade earlier. Like many members of Detroit’s growing Chaldean community, a group of Middle Eastern Christians native to northern Iraq, he owned a small corner store that sold groceries, cigarettes, beer, liquor, and other goods in a mostly Black, working-class neighborhood. As Habiba made her way up the busy Detroit streets, passing factory workers heading home and those coming in for the evening shifts, the store, like always, was in sight. But that evening she saw red and blue lights flashing and a crowd standing outside. She ran to the doors and demanded entry into the shop. “He’s my husband,” she yelled, “I must see him. Let me see him.” It soon became clear to her why they would not let her in. Earlier that day Quentin Moss, a 26-year-old African American man, who lived around the corner, stabbed and killed Jubrail during a struggle after Moss demanded money from the cash register.
Weeks after the stabbing, a group of merchants gathered in their church hall to reflect on the incident. One by one they recounted their own experiences with violence in their stores. “This fellow got held up, that one was held up,” Joe Acho said as he pointed to the sullen-faced business owners. They counted seventeen holdups in the past few months. Some, like Joe’s brother George, were robbed several times at gunpoint. Something had to be done. “We will talk to the mayor and the police commissioner. We need more protection,” Acho declared.
In the aftermath of Jubrail’s death, hundreds of Middle Eastern immigrant store owners in Detroit rallied to demand the city put more police on the streets in response to the violence and crime they claimed plagued their businesses. Seeing themselves as victims of rising crime rates, merchants and their trade organization, the Associated Food Dealers of Detroit (AFD), demanded recourse from the city council by pressuring them to expand the police department. This small yet outspoken group of urban stakeholders became an influential force in building and advocating for more police power and crime control in Detroit at a time of worsening economic and social conditions. Their efforts to address crime in and around their stores, including arming themselves and fortifying their own stores, reveals that immigrant business owners played a role in the formation of urban law-and-order politics during the 1960s and 1970s.
Chaldean storeowners in Detroit made remarkable upward gains in wealth and status in the last three decades of the twentieth century, but at every moment their profits, properties, and persons were vulnerable to the exigencies of the declining social and economic conditions of the neighborhoods they did business in and helped to create through their business practices. While historians of the carceral state have grown interested in how business owners and the coalitions they created advocated for more policing as a response to what they saw as “disorder” and undesirable populations, little work has been done on how urban immigrant merchants banded together and influenced police politics and crime policy. Peering into this gap illuminates the complexities of the rise of the modern carceral state. Immigrant entrepreneurs, in their quest for safety, security, and profits, played a considerable role in shifting Detroit and other cities towards incarceration and policing as the solutions to the material manifestations of the urban crisis.
Throughout the mid- to late twentieth century, as grocery chains disinvested from Detroit, thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants who came to the city after the passage of the 1965 immigration reforms purchased abandoned storefronts and started businesses. Most operations were small family ventures, while a few grew and expanded across the metropolis. They mostly served and profited from working-class African American residents who lived in deindustrialized and segregated communities where there were few other options for obtaining groceries. Starting costs were high, and many grocers borrowed extensively from family. By price gouging, cutting corners, and providing services like check cashing and informal credit to their customers, many merchants eked out a lower-middle-class lifestyle.
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