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CHICAGO: As gun violence and homicides continue to plague the city of Chicago, the office of the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has put in place a strategy meant to improve safety in this American city.

However, Muslim and Arab-owned businesses claim that this strategy harms them without benefiting anyone.

In June 2021, a task force formed by Ms Lightfoot was accused by Arab and Muslim business owners of targeting their stores by carrying out night operations in the most dangerous areas of the city.

More than 150 Arab American and Muslim small businesses were shut down by the task force between June and September 2021, according to the Arab American Chamber of Commerce (AACC).

Arab and Muslim business owners hold a press conference to denounce the fact that the task force, intended to fight crime, is targeting them. (Ray Hanania for Arab News)

To express their displeasure, store owners intervened through the AACC. On September 8, 2021, they held a press conference to raise public awareness of the actions of this task force.

Raymond Lopez supported this movement. The Chicago alderman will be one of Ms Lightfoot’s future opponents in next year’s election.

Nearly twenty-five store owners attended the press conference. Only one of them preferred to remain anonymous to escape possible reprisals from the municipality.

“Several companies have complained of having been closed by the municipality without any valid reason. It was in August that the trend took shape, when we received more and more complaints from store owners,” confided to Arab News Hassan Nijem, President of the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce.

“We filed a complaint with the municipality of Chicago, but only a few city councilors listened to us and reacted, like Raymond Lopez. It seems like everyone is refusing to acknowledge the problem we are facing.”

“Indeed, we represent an easy target who allows the mayor to suggest that she was fighting gang violence. But the reality is quite different”.

Chicago police posted a notice of closure only on the window of this store.  (Ray Hanania for Arab News)
Chicago police posted a notice of closure only on the window of this store. (Ray Hanania for Arab News)

Mr. Lopez tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the Chicago City Council to hold a public hearing that would focus on the store closings operated by the task force. Other officials joined him, including former Illinois State Representative Silvana Tabares and Illinois 3rd District Representative candidate Gilbert Villegas.

Mr Lopez says the targeting of shops that are owned by Arabs and Muslims remains “ineffective in reducing crime” and “morally condemnable”.

“In what contexts and for what reasons do we specifically target these people? Is it because we believe they won’t fight back? Or are we driven by biases that we refuse to admit? Or because we are afraid to attack the real catalysts of violence in our neighborhoods?

Mr Nijem claims that “Madam Mayor rushed to reopen all the stores the day after the press conference we organized to shine the spotlight on this targeting”. Thanks to the coverage of television channels, radios and newspapers, it was “impossible to keep the affair silent”, according to him.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot denies targeting Arabs and Muslims.  (Getty Images via AFP)
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot denies targeting Arabs and Muslims. (Getty Images via AFP)

Lori Lightfoot’s administration has denied targeting stores based on the ethnicity or religion of their owners. The AACC, however, claims that all the closed shops were owned by Arabs or Muslims.

She refused to meet with representatives of the AACC or these owners. She disputes the allegations of racism and accuses the stores of breaking the law.

For their part, the owners of the stores assure that they collaborate with the municipal police to fight crime: they thus report the incidents which occur in the vicinity of their stores and cooperate without reserve with the police to arrest the perpetrators of these acts.

Previously, when accused of code violations, they were given a deadline to respond rather than having their establishments shut down without notice.

“Every day, I fear that the task force […] attacks our business and shuts it down without warning”, tells Arab News Saad Malley, owner of a gas station in Chicago.

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