Inside the B&M Market Friday morning, Kenny Kang stood i front of rows of headache tablet boxes and hair treatments and tried to explain away a man's heart attack inside his store.
"I didn't know," he said softly. "I didn't know."
A television cameraman pulled in for a tight shot of his face. A fellow from the mayor's office leaned in and listened carefully. The man with the heart attack died on the sidewalk outside the market. Now there were pickets out there, talking angrily about racism and carrying signs urging a boycott of Kang's store.
"I didn't know," Kang said softly.
Now the front door burst open, and a man's face appeared. A voice like a hacksaw screamed into the store: "You dumb Korean mother------."
The face quickly withdrew. Kang twisted a ring on his finger antwisted it some more. The TV cameraman turned too late to catch the man in the door. The man from the mayor's office urged calm. Everybody looked outside and saw police cars pulling up and wondered where this was heading.
Outside, on the 3100 block of West North Avenue, a murderous wind ripped up the street. A man named James Drumwright, 57 years old, of Druid Park Drive had a heart attack in this store and then went to his death on the sidewalk outside Thursday morning.
Those are the only facts about which everyone agrees. After that, we deal in rumor and estimation and word of mouth competing across a void. For words to carry across a void, voices have to be raised. On North Avenue at the end of last week, they were beginning to shout at each other.
In the street, pickets said Drumwright was mistreated because he was black.
Inside the store, this was disputed. There were two employees who saw Drumwright leaning against a meat counter and took him outside. They both are black.
One of them, Marcus Gaffney, 20, said he saw Drumwright slouched over. He saw a liquor bottle sticking out of his back pocket and assumed he was drunk. When Gaffney tried to wake him up, Drumwright mumbled a few unintelligible sounds and then urinated on himself. Gaffney called another employee.
"The two of us picked him up and took him outside to get some air," the other employee, 20-year-old Wendell, said. Wendell would not give his last name. He said they carried Drumwright past the front counter, where Kenny Kang said, "Who is that?"
"He's drunk," the two employees said. Kang saw the liquor bottle sticking from the back of Drumwright's pants. Gaffney and Wendell took Drumwright outside and leaned him against a wall. Gaffney says he went inside and immediately dialed 911 for assistance. Wendell stayed outside with Drumwright.
"I was on the phone with 911," Gaffney said Friday, "when I looked out the window and saw the paramedics coming. The whole thing took a couple of minutes."
The paramedics were coming from the Walbrook Station fire engine company across the street. They began working frantically on Drumwright, until an ambulance arrived. Some say it took 15 minutes for the ambulance. Others say 20 minutes.
This is where rumors begin. It's where word of mouth takes on a life of its own. Friday morning, as the pickets marched outside the B&M Market, here was Leslie Howard, president of the Alliance of Rosemont Community Organizations, declaring:
"Rather than calling 911, they dragged the man out to the sidewalk and left him here. . . . They left him here for at least half an hour."
In the next breath, Howard was calling for calm, calling for mediation. A few feet away, a man named Kevin Cameron handed out a protest sign. Cameron said he was from East
Baltimore, the other side of town. He was nowhere near here when James Drumwright was dying on the street. But Friday morning, Cameron was declaring this:
"They dragged him out like a piece of meat. You got 911, you got priorities, but there were no priorities. We're spending our hard-earned money here, and this is how we get treated."
What's troubling here -- aside from a man's death, aside from conflicting bits of information -- is the use of one word: "we."
If there is a "we," there is also a "they," and on North Avenue the division was made racially and not necessarily reasonably.
"People is people," Mun Kang was saying Friday morning. She is Kenny Kang's mother. "We take care for them. Lot of people drunk, they fall down. In my heart, people is people."
Outside, a man watching the pickets said otherwise. "Had he been a white man or a Korean, this would never have happened," he said, and then he took a sign.
L "Unhuman Practice," it said. "We Have Rights," said another.
What is dredged up here is not only the death of a black man in a grocery store owned by people of Korean ancestry, but a history: the recent history of Koreans arriving in this country and opening little grocery stores in black neighborhoods, and the ancient history of blacks being persecuted while the world looked the other way.
On North Avenue Friday morning, it began to feel like a generalized kind of anger. It was more than a man dying under mistaken circumstances; it was a history spilling over, a bubbling resentment of a long litany of outrages.
Inside the B&M Market, the Kang family huddled closely. Outside, in a ferocious wind, pickets marched in a circle and talked angrily, and the cops stood watching. And everybody wondered how the anger would play itself out.