By Kenneth Alyass
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.
Operating a store was always a gamble. Most of the buildings required costly repairs, and it was difficult to obtain proper licensing. Many merchants resorted to buying groceries on credit, forcing them to generate higher-than-average margins to pay the money back. Ronald Acho, a Chaldean store owner in the 1960s, recalled how the credit system worked:
See, what we used to do in the store business, you would pay for your groceries the week after you got them. Like for instance, we would get bread twice a week. On a Monday and a Thursday, okay… The Monday bread you didn’t pay for. When they came in with the Thursday bread, you paid for the Monday’s bread. And then the following Monday, you paid for Thursday’s bread. Same thing for all the other groceries…we had a lot of inventory, but we owed a lot of money.
Debt and high upkeep were compounded by rising crime in and around their stores. Merchants purchased their shops at precisely the moment the urban crisis boiled over into urban unrest and widespread economic devastation. Insurance redlining prevented many merchants from obtaining crucial coverage that would shield them in the case of a robbery, arson, or vandalism.
In 1965 there were 1,173 holdups reported in the city. The next year it jumped to 1,700, and the actual number was likely higher since many shopkeepers reported they did not call the police because, on average, it took half an hour for them to show up. The rise in holdups corresponded with growing unemployment in Detroit, particularly among Black youth. In some neighborhoods the unemployment rate was a dire 25-30 percent. Yet, many Chaldean merchants rejected unemployment as the root cause of the rise in crime and violence at their businesses. A spokesperson for the Chaldean-Iraqi Association claimed a paradox was at play. Chaldo-Assyrian merchants were “subjected to more robberies, holdups and thefts [than] at any time in the history of the city,” despite what he claimed as the general prosperity of most Detroiters during the 1960s. He failed to consider that most merchants served neighborhoods with extremely high levels of unemployment.
Precarity forced some inner-city residents stuck in impoverished neighborhoods to turn to theft as a means of survival. At a hearing between the AFD and the Detroit Common Council a month after the stabbing, Edward Deeb, a second-generation Chaldean merchant and president of the AFD, claimed that a “very small minority of good-for-nothing hoodlums are making life miserable for all law-abiding citizens.” But these so-called “hoodlums” Deeb described were regular customers in the stores and usually lived nearby. Quentin Moss, for example, lived only a few blocks down from Jubrail’s store and was a frequent customer. According to a local resident, Moss came to him after the stabbing, claiming that he only stole money from the register after his altercation with Jubrail. It is unclear what this fight was about or whether Moss told the truth. Nor could I find more records on the case. But the racializing and criminalizing rhetoric Deeb used when describing the merchants’ plight simplified what was a much more complicated situation of poverty and survival.
At the meeting Deeb and other representatives of the AFD described how merchants had responded to crime around their stores. Most were unable to purchase insurance because providers either refused to cover their neighborhoods or charged exorbitant rates—so they installed iron bars across store windows to prevent burglaries and vandalism. Others looked to their children and discouraged them from cotinuing in the family business. “I took this store over from my dad,” one merchant testified, “but I’d never give it to my son.” Their visions of expanding their stores and seeking social mobility through entrepreneurship conflicted with the harsh reality that engaging in commerce in the inner-city during a period of economic and social crisis proved dangerous.
After 180 merchants demonstrated in front of the Association’s offices regarding the rising crime rate and the murder of Jubrail, representatives met with the Detroit Common Council. The AFD requested that the city raise police salaries and hire 1,000 additional policemen specifically to protect small stores, and even offered that the merchants would accept higher taxes to help pay for the officers.
The AFD also encouraged merchants to take greater precautions to minimize their chances of being killed during a holdup. That included developing close relations with police officers. “When armed hoodlums stand on the other side of the counter demanding all the cash,” Deeb penned in an article in the organization’s magazine, The Food Dealer, “better let them have your money than end up a dead hero!” But the most important thing for merchants to do, according to Deeb, was to keep the police close and on friendly terms. Merchants could help out the police by keeping them informed about “suspicious characters” in their stores. “Look for identification marks such as scars, type and color of clothing…then phone the police immediately” at their new emergency phone line designed for merchant reports. While merchants kept the police close, most realized that city support would prove inadequate to respond to crime and violence effectively. Instead of waiting for the police, many took matters into their own hands by arming themselves and fortifying their stores.
When one merchant was asked by reporters what he thought of the recent slaying of two shopkeepers in a store down the street from his, he responded, “It wouldn’t have happened to me.” He explained why by pulling out two chrome-plated steel pistols and saying, “I am the law in here.” One New York Times exposé on violence in the city read, “You can be covered by a store owner’s shotgun while buying a pack of beer.” While a bit hyperbolic, the writer was not entirely off. Many merchants in the city regularly kept an assortment of weapons in their stores, ranging from shotguns and pistols to assault rifles. The proliferation of firearms among merchants was a part of a larger mass buying of guns that occurred in the wake of Jubrail’s murder, taking off after the 1967 Rebellion and continuing throughout the 1970s, when Detroiters’ fears of crime dramatically rose. One estimate posited that Detroiters bought over 500,000 weapons in the months after the rebellion.
While merchants equipped themselves, they also reconfigured the architecture of their stores in the aftermath of the murder of Jubrail and the 1967 Rebellion, constructing what can be called “riot architecture.” Before the late 1960s, shops typically displayed fresh groceries and goods in big windows, which invited those walking or driving by into the store. As crime rates rose and merchants feared more violence, they covered these windows with cinderblock, metal bars, and mesh screens. Barbed wire was also often installed on roofs to prevent the theft of copper wires and electrical components of the air conditioning units that cooled their freezers and fridges. And the most impactful addition was the installation of bulletproof glass, dividing and alienating customers from the store clerks. Merchants often bemoaned the expense of these security measures. For example, Jerry Yono, a young Chaldo-Assyrian storeowner, spent approximately $15,000 for bulletproof glass, walls, and parking lot lighting to ensure the safety of himself, customers, and employees.
By the 1980s the effects of more than a decade of urban crisis, compounded with a harsh recession, resulted in nearly one in four Detroiters unemployed. One symptom of this larger social crisis was the extraordinarily high homicide rate, which hovered around 600 per year—dozens of victims were owners and customers of small corner stores. These economic conditions also cost the city hundreds of millions in lost tax revenue, which resulted in austerity and shrinkages of city services, compounding the immense poverty. Many unemployed and underemployed residents began to use robbery as a means to acquire resources, and feuds between customers and shop owners over accusations of discrimination and racism boiled over in this atmosphere of inequality and anxiety. At the same time, the War on Crime, which began during the Kennedy Administration and took off when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Safe Streets Act in 1968, had dramatically expanded under Nixon, Ford, and Carter. In 1981 Ronald Reagan was elected on a law-and-order mandate. Key to his program was the international War on Drugs, which policed every aspect of the illicit economy, from coca farmers in Bolivia to Black youth on the streets of Detroit. The poverty and violence generated from the expansion of police powers and the long economic crisis of the late twentieth century combusted in the immigrant-owned stores.
Instead of promoting community-driven solutions focused on the economic and social conditions that generated these conflicts, Detroit city officials and the AFD fixated on strengthening ties between merchants and the police department and expanding the police force. This continues into the present. During the late 2010s, Operation Greenlight, a controversial, multimillion-dollar surveillance program run by the Detroit Police Department (DPD), installed hundreds of real-time security cameras at Chaldo-Assyrian owned stores across the city. The program has been enthusiastically received by merchants and police officials, who tout it as a solution to crime in and around the stores. Many customers and activists, however, have criticized the program. They claim that rather than decreasing crime and violence, the program only subjects Detroiters to an Orwellian level of constant surveillance in some of the few sites of commerce and social life in their neighborhoods. As in the 1960s and 1970s, merchants, now in a more formal partnership with law enforcement, continue to criminalize and racialize their customers, which in turn generates more alienation, hostilities, and violence, leading to the deaths of shopkeepers and customers alike. The mistake has been to tout policing as the solution, when that response has only further exacerbated the violence and hinders a possible reconciliation between merchants and their mostly Black, working-class customers.
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.”
Featured image (at top): Concord Market. John Vranesich, “Corner of Concord and Kercheval, Looking Northeast” (1981), Detroit Historical Society.
 Mary Sengstock, The Chaldean Americans: Changing Conceptions of Ethnic Identity (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1982); Mary Sengstock, Chaldeans in Michigan (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005); Jacob Bacall, Chaldeans in Detroit (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2014); John Joseph, The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East: Encounters with Western Christian Missions, Archaeologists, and Colonial Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961). Chaldeans are ethnically Assyrian but identify as Chaldeans because of their traditionally close relationship with the Chaldean Catholic Church built up over time during the Ottoman Era.
 “Grocer Father of 4 Slashes to Death in E. Side Store,” Detroit Free Press, April 5, 1966.
 “Holdups Bring Plea to Police: Slaying Saddens Iraqi Group,” Detroit News, April 12, 1966.
 The prominent literature on immigrant business owners and the politics of crime control has focused on Korean Americans and African Americans, most notably in Los Angeles and New York. Claire Jean Kim’s book, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of the Black-Korean Conflict in New York City, for example, considers the ways in which Korean storekeepers exploited the social conditions of the neighborhoods to accrue profit while also creating animosities between them and their mostly Black and poor customers.
 Two examples of recent work that look at business owners and the politics of crime control: Danielle Wiggins, “’Order as well as Decency’: The Development of Order Maintenance Policing in Black Atlanta,” Journal of Urban History 46, no. 4 (July 2020): 711-727; Benjamin Holtzman, “Expanding the Thin Blue Line: Resident Patrols and Private Security in Late Twentieth-Century New York,” Modern American History 3, no. 1 (March 2020): 47-67.
 “Chaldeans Aided by Entry Law,” Detroit News, May 1, 1966. Between 1972 and 2004, more than 22,000 people immigrated from the Middle East to metropolitan Detroit.
 “Ronald Acho, August 16th, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed November 30, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/397.
 “Chaldean Merchants Hard-Hit,” Detroit Free Press, July 26, 1967. On insurance redlining: Steven J. Gold, The Store in the Hood: A Century of Ethnic Business and Conflict (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 86, 114, 120.
 “Small Shops Get Big Share of Crime,” Detroit News, April 26, 1966.
 “Grocer Father of 4 Slashed to Death in E. Side Store”; “City to Hear Grocers,” Detroit News, April 27, 1966; “Man and His Dream Die,” Detroit Free Press, April 5, 1966.
 “Small Shops Get Big Share of Crime.”
 “Grocer Group Will Weight Plea for Police Protection,” Detroit News, April 26, 1966; “City to Hear Grocers,” Detroit News, April 27, 1966.
 “Off the Deeb End: Don’t Be a Dead Hero,” The Food Dealer, April-May, 1966.
 “Slaying of Clerk Mourned,” Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1973.
 “Riot Trauma Lingers in Detroit,” The New York Times, July 23, 1971.
 See B. J. Widick, Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1989).
 “Mom & Pop Grocers: A Bit of the Past,” Detroit Free Press, September 6, 1977.
 Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).
 “Does Detroit’s Project Green Light Really Make the City Safer?” Detroit Free Press, April 20, 2018; “Detroit’s Project Green Light and the ‘New Jim Code:’ Why Video Surveillance and Digital Technology Intensify Racism,” Public Seminar, October 1, 2020; “Civil Liberty Advocates Caution Use of Project Greenlight During Pandemic Response,” WXYZ Detroit, April 23, 2020.