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Outside the Food Rite Metro Supermarket two Saturdays ago, a small group calling itself the New Black Power Movement is protesting something its members hope everyone will understand: the alleged strip search of an African-American customer wrongly accused of shoplifting on March 24. But on a Logan Circle block where black people are boycotting a Korean-owned store that serves mostly Latinos living in an increasingly white neighborhood, you can’t take anything for granted. A Latino family of four walks towards the door, and 25-year-old Makuti Lee struggles to explain the protest. “The black and the brown need to stick together,” he says. But this is the new D.C., and Lee realizes that the New Black Power Movement is bilingually challenged. “We need a translator,” he says. “Does anybody speak Spanish?” asks Malik Zulu Shabazz, the national spokesperson for the New Black Power Movement. Moments later, he lifts the megaphone to his own lips: “Soledad,” he declares. “We’re asking for soledad!” He’s attempting to say “solidarity,” but “soledad” actually means solitude. And that’s what the family gives his group: They duck inside. A couple of minutes later, the New Black Power Movement’s luck is a little better. Accompanied by her aunt, Juana Perez, 49, steps into the sidewalk fray. When Lee informs them of the alleged attack, Perez decides not to enter. Ten yards away, Perez herself translates the boycott for her elder. The language barrier is not the only challenge. Shabazz himself is known as much for vitriolic attacks on Koreans and Jews as for hislargely unsuccessfulefforts at building a black nationalist political base in D.C. But in an era when grass-roots protest is largely viewed as passé, the many folks who decide to ignore the boycott cite convenience as often as they do politics. For African-Americans, present-day privilege subdues the once-held belief in a common plight. “I can’t walk all over creation to go to the store,” says Reginald Bentley, a black Logan Circle resident who has just bought coffee, onions, and Brillo pads. “If we didn’t have this store, I’d be paying higher prices.” Within a five-block radius, there are two other supermarkets. “If the incident is true, that’s what the legal system is for,” says Harold Smith, also black. “There’s no reason to harass people.” Twenty minutes later, Smith glides through boycott territory with three overstuffed bags.
Five weeks ago, according to a $16 million lawsuit, Lynette Lamons and her 2-year-old daughter were strip-searched by the owners of the market. The boycott is on, but inside this small-scale market, dead presidents are exchanged for plantains and Goya products without interruption. Outside, Lee and Nilajah Nyasuma, 23, circle the broad walkway alone. “The black woman is the most disrespected woman on the planet,” says Nyasuma. “I came here today to say that we can’t tolerate this.” Shabazz, meanwhile, speaks into the megaphone: “We want to bring the cash register to a grinding halt,” he says. Five people join the trio of demonstrators. They hand a man wearing a black hat with “Eritrea” printed in bold white letters a purple protest leaflet. He reads it: “[A] mother and her child were assaulted…in front of a crowd of shoppers…accused of shoplifting…INNOCENT.” He walks in. “Our people need to wake up,” declares Shaw resident Lillian Gordan, who says she attended the historic March on Washington and circles in the picket line today. “The people aren’t out here like they should have been.” She remembers when “boycott” was a more brawny word. Popularized during the civil rights movement, the boycott was one of its most effective strategies. The 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., involved almost 90 percent of black regular bus riders, lasted 381 days, and ended only after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Alabama’s laws requiring segregated bus service were unconstitutional. Today’s marchers don’t have quite as much stamina. Less than two hours into the Food Rite protest, one demonstrator takes a break to go to the barbershop. Soon there is no circle or line, only conversation clusters. At one point, a middle-aged man walks the circle alone.
As the afternoon wears on, the erratic protest gains traction. At 1:00 p.m., the picket line gets reinforcementsin the form of career protesters, no lessfrom Unity for Action, a Baltimore-based activist group. They pull up in a teal sedan and break out a parade-sized banner. “Hey. My man. Don’t go there. A black woman and her child were strip-searched in that store,” says David Miller, a dashiki-clad guy with a Harriet Tubman button pinned to his jacket. He will repeat his mantra almost a dozen times today and will be snubbed as often as he is heeded. A short black man carrying a tote bag steps into the curbside hubbub. “I didn’t know it was this store!” he tells protesters working the store’s driveway. The man heads east on P Street, away from the store, with his purple leaflet. “I can’t come back. This is unconscionable,” he says. Minutes later, a white dude with shorts and sandals says it’s his first time hearing about the alleged search, and he appears flabbergasted. “You can’t strip-search someone! Maybe police could do it. But not the store owners,” he says. “I’m a Humphrey Democrat! I’m not going in there.” He heads west on P Street. Several newly informed carloads of Latinos and East Africans also begin to back out of the driveway upon the protesters’ request. Unity for Action members say they led a boycott in 1996 against a Korean-owned store that sold “bad meat.” They say their month of daily protests shut that store down. But today, on the other hand, they supplement the New Black Power Movement for exactly an hour and a half. At 2:30, their banner is rolled and deposited back into the car. “Next time, I can bring at least 50 people from Baltimore,” Miller says. “I’m going home to put some faxes together.”
“They should see somebody here at all times,” suggests 41-year-old Eric Easton, the vice president of Unity for Action. There are only 16 people listed on the group’s sign-up sheet. Inside the store, however, there are only seven peoplefive of them employees. A cashier slumps over the register with her chin in her hand and no customers in her line. This morning, six vehicles packed the driveway, but now there is only one caran employee’s. “We have lost half of our profits,” says manager John Kim. “Every Saturday is going to be Black Saturday out here,” Shabazz declares outside. “This is only the beginning.” But the next Black Saturday is postponed. At 11:00 a.m. a week later, eight patrons stand in line with brimming baskets, and the New Black Power Movement is nowhere in sight. “That might have been rhetoric on the microphone,” says Shabazz. He says he was in Philadelphia for a Mumia Abu Jamal march and claims the group will be back soon. Meanwhile, pedestrians emerge from nearby neighborhoods, rolling squeaky silver pushcarts into the store. A poultry shipment arrives. The Wonder Bread delivery guy stacks more than 100 loaves on 10 steel rows. He tilts his cart back with one foot and glides into the market, uninterrupted. It’s business as usual. The New Black Power Movement has yet to arrive.CP