Keeping Watch All Night

During the recent unrest that spread across the city of Baltimore in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, several hundred small businesses in the city were damaged, looted or burned down. Many of these stores—more than 50, by the estimate of the Korean American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland—were Korean-owned. These small business owners, mostly immigrants, are now left to grapple with the task of assessing their losses, in some cases irrevocable, while dealing with the physical and emotional toll of seeing years of hard labor destroyed.

thumb_IMG_0696_1024 (1)Minna Kim, a Maryland resident, former elementary school teacher and soon-to-be masters student in clinical and medical social work, recounts the harrowing April 27 evening in which her parents, owners of a liquor store in West Baltimore, guarded their business, at any cost, as riots spread across the city.


On April 22, I landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, blissed out and disoriented. I had spent the last two months in Bali for a yoga leadership training and in Thailand for a meditation retreat. As I disembarked from the plane, the fluorescent lights and stained carpets at the airport posed a stark contrast to the balmy lushness of Southeast Asia.   

On the streets of my hometown, unrest was brewing. Only three days prior to my arrival, Freddie Gray died while in the custody of Baltimore police. Protests were forming. And five days later, shit hit the fan.

On Monday, April 27, the day of Gray’s funeral, my parents locked up their liquor store in West Baltimore around five in the afternoon. Closing before 10 p.m. was unusual for them. But their Korean friends who own a grocery store not too far from theirs called and urged them to leave the city because a riot had erupted at Mondawmin Mall, a little over a mile from the store.

Back home in our suburban neighborhood 20 minutes outside of the city, my parents beelined it to the television set. We sat transfixed, watching news coverage of Baltimore city engulfed in mayhem. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the TV and went about our evening, shooing away any thoughts of misfortune that buzzed around our dinner conversation.

At 9:43 p.m., the alarm company phoned our home.

Without hesitation, my immigrant parents drove back to the store they have owned for nearly a decade. The backdoor had been pried open. Looters were flooding in and out of the store. Stalled outside, my father honked his car horn, upon which the looters shouted warnings to each other to “Hurry up!” and flee. At 10:06 p.m., my mother dialed 911 from the car. A voice recording said all lines were busy. Three minutes later, my mother tried 911 again: another unsuccessful attempt.

Undeterred and hyperalert, my badass mother got out of the car and ran the two blocks towards the nearest police station. Police officers were in riot gear; some were guarding the station. A female officer who appeared to be in charge told my mother they were not supposed to leave their assigned areas. My mother pleaded that her store was very close. Another officer recognized the address. As he began to get into his car with his partner, he told my mother they would stop by. She asked if she, too, should get in the car; they left her to walk back to the store.

store2The liquor store owed by Kim’s parents in disarray the morning after the riots.

She beat the cops back to the store. When they arrived, they scanned the alleyway and the inside of the store from the doorway with their guns pointed and drawn. With no looters in sight, they instructed my parents, “Go home, it’s dangerous.” So they went back to their vehicle and sat with the doors locked, their eyes wide open.

My parents refused to leave the store. They sat in their car and guarded it with their car horn. Keeping watch over the store overrode their fear. They kept watch all night, without a wink of sleep.

The car honks were enough to keep most looters away. Others came and took anyway. One man held up a bottle of alcohol in each of his hands, looking in my parents’ direction, as if to say, “Hey, just so you know, in case you look for these, I’ve got ‘em.” Another man walked up to their car and told them, “You’re OK. Call your insurance company, they’ll give you money,” before helping himself to the inventory inside.

At one point shortly after my parents returned to the store and stood in the doorway, assessing the damage, a man held out a plastic bag and instructed my father to fill it with alcohol lest he get caught on camera. My father solemnly walked into the store and came back with a 40 oz. bottle of Colt 45 and a 24 oz. can of 211 and dropped it into the bag.

Fortunately, a neighbor came by and offered to check in on my parents every hour or so. In the morning, he came by with plywood to help my father board up the back door.

Meantime, back home, I got no sleep. On the living room table was my parents’ uneaten post-dinner snack: a plate of cold Korean pancakes pierced with chopsticks and shot glasses of unfinished soju. That sight evoked sadness, anger and fear in me: of another meal interrupted, of another black life unjustly lost, of lives disturbed and swirling in uncertainty. I did the dishes, folded laundry, responded to a couple of emails and updated my LinkedIn profile. I was endlessly productive; I didn’t know what else to do. I checked in with my parents every hour or so, and my mother would respond with emojis that included hearts and one with sleepy zzz’s, telling me to rest.

At the first hint of sunrise at approximately 5:30 a.m., my parents warily left their car and went into the store. Not only was merchandise stolen, their store was in disarray; chips, bits of candy and shattered glass littered the floor, which was sticky with alcohol and gummed with pieces of Tastykake Krimpets.

Over the next several days, the three of us spent most of our time at the store, cleaning, taking stock of losses and damages and waiting for the cops to file a report. We’ve found the insurance auditor and company to be sympathetic, quick to respond and generous with their time and money. Yet the stories we’ve heard from other Korean business owners have been horrifying: multiple denials of coverage because the location of their store is deemed unsafe, policy cancellations without warning, mediocre coverage and high premiums.

Three days and seven 911 calls later, three police officers finally came to the store. They looked so tired. They shook their heads as they wrote down details of the report. One officer muttered that this makes all law enforcement look bad. Another recounted the experience of a fellow Korean business owner who was hospitalized.

A week ago, on the evening of May 5, I accompanied my parents to a meeting attended by Maryland’s First Lady Yumi Hogan that brought together state and city representatives and about 60 afflicted Korean business owners in Baltimore.

Gathered at the Gyung Hyang Garden Korean Church in Columbia, Md. were representatives from the Korean Society of Maryland and Korean American Grocers’ Association (KAGRO), along with Colonel Garnell Green of the Baltimore Police Department; Secretary Jimmy H. Rhee of the Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs; Maryland Insurance Administration Commissioner Alfred Redmer Jr.; Department of Housing and Community Development Assistant Secretary Carol Gilbert, and others.

James Kwak, director of ethnic commissions at the Governor’s Office, introduced the officials in English while Eunhae M. Gohng, an attorney at Sung & Hwang law firm, provided Korean-English translation.

The evening produced many stories and questions by the Korean business owners, which were mostly received with sympathy, patience and proactive responses by the panel.

I sat listening to story after story, question after question. Most of the owners’ concerns stemmed from matters of basic survival, such as putting food on their plates and coping with years of dashed labor: What can I do about my store that has burned down? The store wasn’t insured. How can I apply for loans? What is the maximum loan amount? How soon can I expect to receive the loan? My insurance company cancelled my policy without notifying me: what do I do now? Where can I go to get a police report, because the cops still haven’t shown up and my insurance will not process the claim without one?

My own mother stood up from the table where we were seated and, bowing deeply, expressed her gratitude to the officials for taking their time to listen to her. In a quivering voice that betrayed her frustration and sadness, she asked, “Can you please help me remove the trash? I apologize for asking such a trivial question but we need to clear the glass and wreckage so that we can operate our business. Thank you, I trust that you will help me.”

I felt extremely proud to be her daughter and supremely sad for the way in which she was systemically and emotionally repressed.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 3.42.14 PMA gift from one of Kim’s parents’ customers in the aftermath of the looting. Says Kim’s mother, “그레도 세상은 아름답고 좋은 사람들이 많아요.” (“There are many loving and good people in our world.”)

Nearly two hours later, at the conclusion of the meeting, First Lady Hogan stood up to speak, acknowledging the time and incompleteness of this rudimentary process. In both Korean and English, she boldly remarked, “우리도 도움을 드려아 됩니다.” “We must also offer help. We have to volunteer. People are coming from everywhere to serve [Baltimore].” She urged leaders in the Korean community, such as church pastors, to encourage their members to serve beyond the Korean community.

한 마음으로 같이 나가요.” “Let’s all move forward together, one in heart and mind,” Hogan told those gathered.

As a city responded to the untimely and sudden death of Freddie Gray, it’s no surprise that a hyper-charged and complex situation escalated to the destruction of innocent property and livelihoods. It exposed the strained falsehood of security and injustice felt by many in this city.

Several people have pointed out that I had just spent two months away in peace and paradise and felt it was such a shame for me to come home right before such tragic events hit my hometown. For me, the time away prepared me to face this violent awakening with more clarity and groundedness. Needless to say, I still experience moments of outrage, confusion and numbness.

Similarly, my parents are juggling feelings of betrayal by those who looted their store; of frustration from the insufficient support by the police and lack of urgency from city and state officials; and of utter exhaustion and distress by the limitations of their circumstances. However, they are grateful they were unharmed, that their business is salvageable and that many members of the community have shown love and support.

And, where there is destruction, there is space for creation.

My parents have since opened up their business, selling the remaining stock while waiting for deliveries to be made (many deliveries have been suspended until this week due to the unease in Baltimore). They are doing what they can with what they have while squelching their unexpressed thoughts and emotions—not an uncommon story, unfortunately.   

Recommended Reading

Maryland’s First Lady Pledges Support for Afflicted Businesses

Korean American Businesses Damaged from Baltimore Riots


Photos courtesy of The Kim Family

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