Posted on November 29, 1993 in Washington Watch

Since 1990, Ahmed, (not his real name) 47 years old, has run a small grocery store in a poor, high-crime neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. Like other small businessmen in the area, Ahmed has been tormented by young gang members who live in the vicinity of his store. His business has regularly been victimized by armed robbery, petty shoplifting, and vandalism. Even his one room apartment in the back of the store has been broken into and robbed on a number of occasions. Faced, one too many times, by armed gunmen, Ahmed, like many other storeowners has broken the law and armed himself with a gun.

Last week was especially difficult for Ahmed. He was robbed, he was threaten ed and he was afraid. Like other store owners in poor areas, he hesitated to call the police. When he had, they would come to his store, file a report about his problem—and do little else. Ahmed was also afraid that by calling the police, he might anger some of the gang members in the area and bring even greater problems to his business.

At about midnight on Wednesday, after what had been a difficult day, a young man came into his store and stole a bag of potato chips. An altercation ensued. As the youth left the store, Ahmed shot him in the back. The injured boy is now partially paralyzed from the gunshot wound, and Ahmed has been arrested for illegal possession of a firearm.

The next day, Cleveland’s newspapers and T.V. headlined the story “Arab American Merchant Shoots 16 Year Old over $.75 Bag of Chips.”

On the very next day, on the other side of Cleveland an Arab American merchant was robbed in his store. He was shot twice in the stomach. To date, there has been no mention of this incident by the Cleveland media.

While the sensationalism and bias of Cleveland’s media is a real problem for that city’s Arab American grocers, the more serious problem is the epidemic of violence and crime that now plagues every U.S. city. No one can escape it, and small businessmen are especially at risk.

Cleveland, a city of 500,000, is home to about 15, 000 Arab Americans. About 350 Arab Americans own small grocery stores—many in the poorer neighborhoods of the city. Like the Asian Americans and Greek Americans, the recent immigrant Arab Americans buy small businesses wherever they can be found, in an effort to begin their ascent into the American middle class. But as last year’s riots in Los Angeles and Chicago, and the dramatic rise in U.S. urban murder rates show—it is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous to attempt to do business in U.S. inner cities.

For example, during the past two and one-half years, ten Arab American merchants in Cleveland were murdered in their stores. During a recent four-month period, police statistics showed that ten percent of the Arab American stores were victimized by violent crime or robbery. And Arab American leaders in Cleveland estimate that in an average year, more than one-half of the city’s small businesses are hit by a major crime.

Ahmed’s problems and those of the other Arab American grocers of Cleveland are but part of a much larger set of problems confronting the U.S. today—namely, the problems of crime, violence and urban decay.

The statistics are frightening. In 1973, there were 8,718,000 crimes reported to have been committed in the United States. By 1992, the number of crimes reported had risen to 14,438,200—an increase of 65 percent.

During the same period, violent crimes increased 120 percent, from 875,910 in 1973, to 1,932,270 in 1992. Also during the last 20 years, murders committed in the United States have increased to 23,760 last year.

According to official U.S. government statistics, it is estimated that almost 23,000,000 U.S. households are victimized by crime each year, and an average of 650,000 Americans are faced by a crime committed with a handgun.

Murder has become the number one cause of death for African American males between the ages of 16 to 34 years old. Murder is second as the cause of death for all U.S. males in that age group. And if one adds together the murders and suicides in a single year, the extent of the slaughter becomes clear. In 1990, 37,155 Americans were killed with guns in acts of crime and suicide. That is 4,000 more Americans killed than during the entire Korean War.

The murder rate in the U.S. is staggeringly high and much higher than any other community in the world. For example, in 1990 guns used in criminal acts murdered:

10,567 Americans
10 Australians
22 British
87 Japanese
68 Canadians

The U.S. totals vividly point to the magnitude of the problem of violence in the United States.

It is, therefore, no real surprise that fear of crime and violence and the need for personal security have emerged as priority issues for many U.S. voters. The issue of crime is one reason why many Democrats lost elections to Republicans in November of 1993. Some Americans feel that the Democrats are less tough on crime and criminals than are Republicans.

It may have been in an effort to convince Congress and the public that he is a “different kind of Democrat” that led President Clinton the support the very strong anti-crime bill that has just passed Congress. The legislation, one of the toughest anti-crime bills to become law, extends the death penalty for 47 crimes, establishes Federal crime status for 60 criminal acts, sets higher mandatory prison sentences for a wide-range of offenses, and provides increased funding to place an additional 50,000 police officers on U.S. city streets.

Liberals were upset with some of these aspects of the law. they preferred to explore preventative measures to improve urban conditions, provide job training for unemployed inner city youth, and rehabilitation programs for first-time offenders. Leading the call for these types of reforms is Clinton’s own Attorney General Janet Reno. But she is apparently losing ground as the Administration pushes for a harder line on crime.

What has angered conservatives were parts of the crime bill that made illegal the sale of 19 types of semi-automatic weapons (there are currently 1,000,000 such firearms in the circulation in the United States) and create a mandatory five-day waiting period before one is able to purchase a handgun (there are currently 200,000,000 handguns owned by Americans).

As the head of an anti-crime lobby group said, “Americans are fed up with the carnage, and they are demanding action.” The new crime bill may be a response to this voter outrage. Will it have an impact in reducing crime? Will it make Ahmed in Cleveland feel more secure? Will it remove guns both from the gangs and the grocers? These are the questions waiting to be answered.

But what is clear is that the issues of crime and violence are now at the center of the political debate and will remain there until the frightening escalation of killings and robberies is under control.

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