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Murder At the Corner Store: Immigrant Merchants and Law and Order Politics in Postwar Detroit

With seventeen holdups in the past few months, something had to be done. “We will talk to the mayor and the police commissioner. We need more protection".

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.