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Callous disrespect taints a 'sacred day'

January 26, 2008|SANDY BANKS

It was such a cowardly way to mark the birthday of such a courageous man.

After the parade honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday afternoon, a mob of teenagers swarmed a 7-Eleven store just off the parade route on King Boulevard. They grabbed candy, cookies, sodas, chips -- ransacking the store in the process -- and ran out without paying.

The commotion lasted less than a minute. The damage was minor. No one was hurt.

Unless you count the heartache felt by the store's owner, Sundeep Bhatia, as he watched the ugly spectacle.

"Every day we have shoplifters," Bhatia told me. "But for these kids to come from the parade and do this kind of stuff, on such a sacred day as this. . . . "

Bhatia came here from India 20 years ago and spent 10 years working two jobs to save enough money to buy a 7-Eleven store in Inglewood, then another on King Boulevard near Crenshaw. He's reconciled himself to the high cost of doing business in inner-city Los Angeles.

At the King Boulevard store, he spent $82,000 on security guards last year. He has 16 surveillance cameras streaming video to a backroom monitor. He contracts with a security firm that can summon the LAPD instantly and broadcasts periodic alerts over the store's loudspeaker to let customers know they're being watched.

Still, most of the time, he and his employees watch helplessly as shoplifters victimize the store. "Sometimes you try to stop them and they threaten you," he said. "It's not worth a confrontation."

But on Tuesday -- after a night of soul-searching about whether to go public -- Bhatia e-mailed me. "You need to see and write something that sends a message," he wrote. "Otherwise these kids will be future criminals."

I visited his store Wednesday and watched a security-monitor replay of Monday's commotion.

On the screen, a horde of teenagers seemed to materialize out of nowhere, dashing between cars in the strip mall parking lot and pouring through the store's double doors. The youths fanned out and swept down the aisles, knocking things off shelves, stuffing their pockets, shoving things under their baggy jackets.

An employee rushed over to block the entrance, to keep more from coming in. He was shoved out of the way by the raucous crowd, as the teenagers burst through the door to leave.

I counted at least 30 kids inside. They were clearly acting on a plan; there were too many and they moved too quickly toward their targets for their actions to be random. They seemed to be in high spirits, shouting and laughing the whole time. Most were boys, but a few girls were among them.

And though it was hard to tell on the grainy video, all the kids I could see looked black to me. And so, I took it personally.

It's probably too much to expect them to really feel inspired by -- or indebted to -- Martin Luther King Jr. They have never been forced to drink from "colored" water fountains or forbidden from checking into a whites-only hotel -- experiences seared into my memory during summer visits as a child to my grandparents' farm in Alabama.

They're probably too young to even remember the national hand-wringing over whether to declare King's birthday a holiday. They've been bequeathed a civil rights icon that, through the passage of time and the evolution of history, has been reduced to a one-dimensional symbol of sit-ins and speeches.

Still, it was painfully ironic to see the crowd of rowdy black teens, likely fresh from the parade, flaunting their disrespect so brazenly.

Bhatia told me he spent the morning watching televised tributes to King and the afternoon among the multicultural throngs watching the parade. "Everybody was so happy, everything was so nice. Then afterward, this," he said, shaking his head as he gestured toward the images on the security screen.

What did those kids think we were celebrating, with all those choirs and bands and drill teams in the street? Other than a day out of school and a shoe sale at the mall, what does the King holiday really mean?

I felt disappointed and embarrassed watching the tape, and found myself apologizing to him, as if I bore some sort of collective responsibility. But Bhatia reminded me that King's legacy doesn't belong only to people who look like me, just as he cannot lay singular claim to the moral lessons of Gandhi.

King "was not just for one person, one race. What he did was for everybody," Bhatia said. "And his message ought to be respected."

Bhatia is not sure what he'll do next. He reported the incident to the LAPD, but knows that petty thefts rank low among its priorities. He's called officials at nearby Dorsey High, but knows from past experience not to expect a call back. He wonders -- and so do I -- what these kids' parents would think if they saw the tape he played for me.

The tape rolls again and I lean in to study the screen -- zoom in, zoom out, through 16 scenes. I see a girl stuff her pockets with candy bars, crowds of boys snatching chips and sodas, a display of bottled water knocked to the floor.

Surely some of those kids knew what they were doing was wrong. But they found it easier to go along with the mob than find the courage to speak up or stop. What a mockery of the choices Dr. King made. And what a sad taint on a "sacred" day.

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