Will shutting down two businesses really 'clean up' the Tenderloin?

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It was noon on the Jan. 30 when I broke the news to 24-year-old Amer Mousa that the City of San Francisco was filing a civil suit to shut down Walid Abdulrahman, his friend and owner of the Razan Deli on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin.

Two hours earlier, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr held a press conference out the front of the Azaal Market on the corner of Leavenworth and Turk streets in the Tenderloin to announce the dual lawsuits against the markets owners, Jaber A. Algahim and Walid Abdulrahman, for maintaining a public nuisance. Our efforts to get comments from Algahim and Abdulrahman were not successful, but Mousa spoke freely about the situation.

The City's complaint says the deli is a safe haven for criminal activity and that Abdulrahman either allows it to continue unabated or is actively involved himself. It is not hard to understand the logic behind the suit; shut down problem businesses and the neighborhood will heal. But in a City with a history of going after small businesses as if they are the root cause of all criminality, the question remains about whether this is really about helping the neighborhood or about being seen to help.

Abdulrahman does not speak English well, so it was Mousa who answered the phone. When first asked about the store's involvement in illicit activity, Mousa became flustered, confused, and denied any knowledge of drug activity within the store. “Maybe outside, in the neighborhood, but I wouldn't risk my job like that,” he said at the time.

Both Abdulrahman and Mousa are from Jordan. Abdulrahman is a close friend of Mousa's father, so close Mousa refers to him as “uncle.” Mousa came to the U.S. on a greencard in 2009 and has been studying to be a nurse. He met his future wife in school and they married in 2010. Every day he heads into San Francisco from Daly City to work in deli from 10pm until 6am to support his young family.

The Razan Deli is a pokey little deli open 16 hours a day that does not sell alcohol and keeps little stacked on the shelves. It caters for the homeless and street population with candy, burritos, and cheap pre-made frozen meals. Bigger items are left to liquor-selling competitors across the road whose owners refuse to say anything about what happens outside their doors, lest some doped-up gang member decide to make an example of them. When asked, they just stare at the ceiling and say they put their faith in God.

Outside, Ellis Street is quiet, at least during the day, with the exception of a woman in a wheelchair and another leaning against a wall who mumbles something about robbery and cackles to herself. Stopping at any intersection along Turk Street invariably means being approached by dealers. The greatest concentration stand just outside the Azaal Market while they chatter constantly and offer passers-by narcotics with incomprehensible street names.

The lawsuit was the result of a two-year undercover operation by the SFPD that claimed to have found evidence of a “pattern of illegal activity” at each business. The complaint and police statements claim the deli acted as a safe-haven and intermediary for drug dealing and buys stolen goods for resale. To build the case, undercover officers visited a local Walgreen's and asked the business to donate items before trying to re-sell the product to businesses in the Tenderloin, while slipping in the fact that they were stolen goods.

Police statements say Abdulrahman bought stolen goods and helped facilitate undercover officers buying drugs from the dealers loitering outside the shop. Mousa does not deny that Abdulrahman took the bait on the two occasions he was present. “Look, we're not angels,” he says. “When the undercover police came, they gave us razors, you know like Gillette, and my uncle bought some stolen merchandise for personal use. He didn't buy all, he just bought some.”

If true, that would be a very different accusation than the one being made by the city in its civil suit, which has asked the court to close the business and impose an initial penalty of $25,000, additional penalties of $2,500 for “each act of unlawful business practice” and costs for the suit and investigation. In a criminal prosecution, Abdulrahman might receive up to a year in jail for receiving stolen goods of around $200 in value and a separate charge for being an accessory to the sale of a small quantity illicit substances. That is, assuming he is guilty of everything the police say he is. And they have evidence.

Yet none of that matters. Abdulrahman cannot afford an attorney; he will appear self-represented. Either he will be sent into bankruptcy or he will be run out of business. This legal fight seems lopsided, to say the least.

The City of San Francisco has a history of going after small liquor shops and markets in the Tenderloin and the Mission on a crusade to shut down criminal “safe-havens” or “magnets of drug dealing,” as Matt Dorsey, media liaison for the City Attorney's Office, framed it during a phone conversation about the city's tactics in choosing to bring a civil claim against Abdulrahman. “Civil cases have lower standard of evidence. Effectively we're going to try and shut the business down. As they say, the City's Attorney tries to take their money. The District Attorney puts people in jail,” he said.

The theory goes that shutting down such places will force the criminal element out, leave them nowhere to go and ultimately make the neighborhood a safer place. Randy Shaw, Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) and editor of BeyondChron, has endorsed this view and has said he “cheered” the litigation.

Shaw's hostility for the Azaal Market, alternatively known as the Barah Market, was plain. His tone indicated the market's continued existence was a personal slight. “We sued the Maryland and the Barah markets in the 90's and the Maryland hasn't been a problem since,” said Shaw, a housing right attorney turned Tenderloin political power broker. Shaw said he welcomes any city efforts to try to clean up the neighborhood. But it's hard to see how this action will make much difference, particularly given the neighborhood's open criminality.

“I called the police more than seven or eight times, from the cell phone,” Mousa said. “What did they do? Nothing. They know who the drug dealers are. There's just two to four drug dealers on the whole block. Most of the others just work for them. If police don't come and do their job, what am I supposed to do? Start shooting? ... If I keep calling the police I'm going to get shot. All I can do is tell them to get outside the store. Go sell your shit outside the store.”

Abdulrahman's shop will close, that seems like the likely outcome. Once the shutters are drawn, the City Attorney and the Chief of Police will hold another press conference and claim a great victory in their fight to “clean up the neighborhood” in the name of “families and the elderly.” It will sound good on television, and read well in the papers. Everyone will clap and agree that the streets are a safer place for it, but it seems like a huge stretch of imagination to blame the Tenderloin's problems on these two small businesses.

“I'm a full time student, I have a wife, I'm not living by myself, I cannot live by myself or with some buddies, I need to have a home. After the store closes, what's going to happen to me? There are no jobs right now. Even if I get a full-time job, how much am I going to make?” Mousa says. “This is just going to destroy two families, two households. What's going to happen? Nothing's going to change. There are still going to be drug dealers outside... This neighborhood is broken. It was broken when we got here, it will be broken when we leave.”

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