Freddie Gray riots devastated small business owners

Some small business owners seek support after Freddie Gray riots destroyed stores.

The dust appears to have settled in Baltimore, and while the cameras and protesters from around the country have left, our city is still reeling from pain and raw with emotion. As I look around Cherry Hill and the other neighborhoods I have worked in for the past 25 years, I am surrounded by broken glass, ashes from burned down buildings and boarded up windows where small mom and pop stores used to operate. While I cannot help but feel an intense sense of sadness, despair and anger that the town I care and invested so much in has come into ruins, I hope that by working together to heal our wounds, we will be able to rebuild ourselves into a city that is more peaceful, united and stronger.

As Chair of the Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, Inc. (KAGRO) for over two decades, I have worked tirelessly with our member businesses and other Asian American-owned businesses to contribute to the greater fabric of Baltimore's communities. Day in and day out, we have provided hot sandwiches, groceries and drinks to Baltimoreans in parts of the city where options were scarce. Despite the language barriers and cultural misunderstanding, we have built strong relationships and friendships with our customers, and we care about the success of the neighborhoods we operate in.

As immigrants who left everything behind to secure a better life for our children, we critically believe in the importance of education and providing more opportunities for our youths to have a fair shot at pursuing their dreams. Since 1989, KAGRO has provided over $250,000 in scholarships to invest in the future of Baltimore's young leaders. Unbeknownst to many people, our business owners contributed and sacrificed for such causes while also struggling to put food on our own tables and send our kids to college.

Sadly many of these businesses have been severely impacted by the recent outbreak on the streets of Baltimore. More than 50 of our members' stores and beauty supply stores have been damaged, looted or burned down. One store owner ran out of his burning building, only to be beaten by the looters and left for dead.

We share the pain of Baltimore in mourning for Freddie Gray's wrongful death. At the same time, we too are suffering and it is still very real and very raw for us. We are devastated for the loss of everything we have worked so hard to build. We are aching as we try to erase the images of our livelihoods go up in flames before our own eyes — in neighborhoods we care about, with people whom we have gotten to know so well. We are hurt that the police refused to answer hundreds of requests for assistance.

Our community has also been traumatized. Yet, not one single high-ranking official from the city has come to visit or check in on us. We wonder whether toiling 12 to 14 hour days at our corner stores was worth it after all. Do not our lives matter too?

We are aware that the riots destroyed not only Asian-owned stores; more than 350 black-owned and other community stores were impacted as well. Our entire city has been wounded. It is up to us to heal, reconcile and rebuild together, as One Baltimore.

We recognize that many neighborhoods in Baltimore have been confronting decades of disinvestment and neglect, a situation that must be redressed by public and private sectors. We must work across racial, cultural and religious lines to establish concrete next steps on this important work. It will take time and hard work to build trust, peace and our economy, but we must work hand in hand across all lines to find ways for the rising tide to lift all boats. Asian American small business owners are ready to be part of that process.

We stand in solidarity with the grassroots organizers, community leaders, faith leaders, concerned residents and other business owners in our beloved city, to fight for justice and economic equality together. It too is our Baltimore.

David H. Kim is chair of the Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, Inc. His email is dhkim55@yahoo.com.

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