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Korean American business owners, among hardest hit by looters, feel victimized and alone

Many victims have been hit twice this year by waves of thievery and vandalism. The said police were unresponsive.

Beauty store boarded up as a result of vandalism on Germantown Ave. in June 2020.
Beauty store boarded up as a result of vandalism on Germantown Ave. in June 2020.Read moreArthur Brown Jr

For many of the nearly 100 beauty supply stores in Philadelphia, it was another rough week.

From Monday to Wednesday, thieves and vandals broke into at least 17 stores, making off with merchandise and even store fixtures. The losses were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In some cases, thieves struck again at shops that were damaged previously during a more widespread outbreak of looting that flared in May after police in Minneapolis killed a man there. The damage and theft this week erupted after news broke Monday of how police had shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia.

“Some owners tried to call the police, but they didn’t respond,” said Sharon Hartz, president of the Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia, an advocacy organization for many of those who operate the supply shops. “A few had a chance to get police but when they came, they dismissed it. Groups of 20 to 30 people came to loot at a time. It was scary.”

» READ MORE: For a second night, Philly businesses faced scattered vandalism. ‘It’s terrible for the business climate,’ a councilman says.

Her group provided a count of damaged shops. “Some of the stores, they’re thinking of closing down for good,” she said.

Frustrated at what they view as an unhelpful Police Department, some owners hired security guards at a cost that some merchants say reached $3,000 a night. And a few have armed themselves.

“I was behind the window with my double-barreled shotgun and a handgun praying [the looters] don’t get past my gate,” said one Korean American merchant in North Philadelphia, who did not want to be identified for fear of becoming a future target. “I was scared for my life, because there’s no way a single guy is going to deter 30 looters if they all want to all come in.”

As it happened, no one approached his store during his nights on watch.

» LATEST UPDATES: Find the most recent news on the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. here

Real estate agent Michael Choe, president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce for Philadelphia, said some of his members were troubled when City Council adopted a bill this week that would forbid police from using tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators. He said these critics fear the law may lead some police to refrain as well from deploying such weapons against lawbreakers.

“Police will decide to not engage with the looters," Choe said. “That makes things a lot worse. The business owners may be put in jeopardy."

Councilman-at-large David Oh, the first Asian American on the body, was one of only three members of the 17-member council to vote against the tear-gas and rubber-bullet measure.

Oh said what shopkeepers needed was not guns, but for their voices to be heard.

“They have a right to use [firearms] to protect themselves and their property,” said Oh, an Army veteran. “But an armed confrontation is a terrible thing to get into. They face prosecution and possible retribution from the neighborhood. No one goes into business to shoot anyone.”

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Business owners, especially those in the Korean community, “feel left out of the conversation," Oh said. “Between police reform, proper enforcement, racial inequities, that is a conversation that contains little or no concern about them."

Though protesters are not the people who are looting, the merchants say demonstrations drain police resources that might otherwise protect businesses. They noted that several protests are scheduled for the weekend through Election Day.

“That’s why many of our stores don’t plan to reopen until after the election,” said Hartz. “All businesses closed down on Thursday. That’s all we can do.”

Staff writer Joseph N. DiStefano contributed to this report.