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Arab and Asian American gas station owners call on City Council to investigate alleged racial targeting by inspectors

A group of Arab and Asian American business owners claim the city have been closing down gas stations over “frivolous” code violations.

Aysar Abushanab, manager of the Falcon Fuel gas station at 7850 S. Western Ave., speaks during a news conference, accusing the city of racial targeting and closing stores over building code citations, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
Aysar Abushanab, manager of the Falcon Fuel gas station at 7850 S. Western Ave., speaks during a news conference, accusing the city of racial targeting and closing stores over building code citations, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A group of Arab and Asian American gas station owners on Monday called on the City Council to investigate alleged racial targeting by city inspectors.

The business owners and managers say inspectors have closed down many minority-run businesses for minor violations.

The manager of Falcon Fuel, Aysar Abushanab, said a task force of police and city inspectors came to his gas station on a Friday in late July and shut down the business, citing five electrical and safety violations.

Three weeks later, Abushanab called the inspectors back to the business in the 7800 block of South Western Avenue to review the corrections and was instead issued additional violations.

“That’s their game,” Abushanab said. “They will never open you back up on the first visit.”

His business has been shut down for nearly two months — leaving a handful of employees out of work and costing him thousands of dollars in losses.

The American Arab Chamber of Commerce of Chicagoland said dozens of stations have been closed.

Saad Malley has owned gas stations in the city and suburbs for four decades but says he has noticed a difference in enforcement over the past couple of years.

“I’m anxious,” Malley said. “These task forces come Friday afternoon, you have no chance to even correct something or call somebody or go to the city to do anything about it. If we were in violation, cite us, tell us to correct it — don’t shut us down.”

Aysar Abushanab, manager of the Falcon Fuel gas station at 7850 S. Western Ave., speaks during a news conference, accusing the city of racial targeting and closing stores over building code citations, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
Aysar Abushanab, manager of the Falcon Fuel gas station at 7850 S. Western Ave., on Monday accused the city of racial targeting and closing stores over minor building code violations.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The group of business owners estimates the recent closures have resulted in a loss of more than 300 jobs.

Inspectors have allegedly told some owners they are closing stores to discourage gangs from congregating near the businesses.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office said the city has been working with gas station owners to ensure code compliance.

“Two weeks ago, a deputy mayor as well as several senior departmental leaders from the Department of Buildings, Business Affairs & Consumer Protection, and the Chicago Police Department hosted a roundtable for these very businesses,” the mayor’s office said. “As a follow up to the requests from the business owners, the city is providing business liaison teams and code checklists to businesses to engage on affirmative compliance.”

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) expressed support for the business owners and argued shutting down stores will prove ineffective in reducing crime.

“Where and why are we focusing on this group [of minority owners]? Is it because we think that they won’t stand up? Is it because we have biases that we don’t want to admit? Or are we afraid to truly tackle the real magnets of violence in our neighborhoods?” Lopez said.

The business owners issued a letter to a dozen aldermen demanding the City Council investigate these closures over “ridiculous” and “frivolous” code violations. Lopez said Monday that he and several colleagues plan to pursue the issue with the Buildings Department and call for a hearing if needed.

In addition to being offered little time and resources to correct violations, the gas station owners say they have been subject to harassment by inspectors who express “disdain because of our Arab heritage and Muslim religion,” the letter read.

Owners said they have remained open through the pandemic — many of them contracting the coronavirus themselves or working overtime to cover for workers who fell ill — and ask that the city respect their business.

“When the task force comes in they put fear in everybody,” Abushanab said.