Only media see dispute as racial

November 06, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Eun Lee looked out the door Monday of what he says was his once prosperous food store -- the Canaan Discount Food Outlet in the 5200 block of Park Heights Ave., across the street from the famed Pimlico Race Track.

No customers were in the store on this cool autumn afternoon. Just Lee, along with a young black man who has worked for him since the store opened in August and a young Asian woman working the counter. Outside the guys with the bullhorns and signs proclaiming that Canaan sells bad food continued their nearly weeklong protest.

A young man and woman in a white car pulled onto the lot and parked in front of the store. They got out and were at the door when Bill Goodin, one of the protesters, grabbed his bullhorn and swung into action.

"This store sells bad food," he shouted into the bullhorn. "We are asking people not to support this store. This store was closed by the Health Department last week."

"Closed by the Health Department?" the man about to enter asked incredulously. "Hell no!" He and his lady friend briskly walked back to their car. Chalk up another victory for the protesters and another lost customer for Lee, whose ordeal started about a week ago. That is probably one of the few points on which Lee -- who says he has been a Baltimore businessman for the past 16 years -- and his adversaries agree.

Eric Eaton, one of the protesters, said the controversy began with a call to a local talk radio show after a cabdriver claimed to have bought some frozen meat with a sell-by date of July. Other community residents then checked the store and found meats with no labels and no sell-by dates, Eaton claimed, adding that he and others found the odor in the store offensive.

"A policeman had to agree with me. The stench hit you as you walked in the door," Eaton said Saturday morning as he stood with Goodin and another demonstrator in the brisk cold. Eaton also charged that he videotaped rotten meat Lee threw away after complaints were lodged and said he believes that the owner would have sold it.

Lee, perhaps not surprisingly, denied the charge. Selling rotten meat, aside from being immoral, would not be good business.

"[If] you are my customer [and] I sell you bad food, you are never coming back," Lee said in response to the charge, which protesters even printed on a flier.

"Canaan Discount Foods have come into this community with the intent of selling bad foods and meats!" the blue flier with black letters screamed. It's a serious charge, one that might even lead to a lawsuit if found to be untrue. And the good intentions of the protesters aside, the Health Department report issued after officials visited Canaan last Thursday did not cite Lee for selling "bad food."

In fact, the report noted that the "frozen foods inside freezers [are] at proper temperatures." Packs of sausages and hot dogs with outdated sell-by dates on them "look to be in sound condition," the Health Department representative noted. The Health Department ordered Lee to "clean [the] floor inside walk-in box thoroughly, eliminate odors in store by cleaning and sanitizing all floors, shelves, equipment, etc. [and to] elevate all food 18 inches off the floor inside [the] walk-in box."

Lee said he voluntarily closed his store Friday to do the cleansing ordered by the Health Department and reopened Saturday. He denied Goodin's charge that the Health Department closed the store. Although a clearly discernible odor could be detected Saturday, it was practically gone Monday afternoon.

Dan Donavon, the business manager for Canaan who said he has 15 years' experience as a meat director for Super Pride and Stop, Shop and Save, claimed freezing meat with expired sell-by dates is standard procedure for food stores. Some even put new sell-by stickers over the old ones, Donavon claimed.

That probably wouldn't faze Eaton, who said the protesters are putting all stores on notice.

"If you want the black dollar, you're going to have to clean up your store also," Eaton said, adding that objectionable black store owners would get the same treatment. He said several television stations have erroneously tried to paint the controversy as a black vs. Asian issue.

"It's a health issue," Eaton insisted. To the protesters' credit, they have made not one reference to Lee's race. They are a couple of hundred cuts above those Harlem demonstrators who engaged in racial and ethnic baiting last December in a landlord-tenant dispute that ended with a deranged man killing five people and burning down a store.

To Lee's credit, he is also hesitant to race bait. When I asked him if he thought the protesters were racially motivated and targeting him because he is Asian, he shook his head sadly.

"I really don't know," he muttered. "I really don't know why."

With neither Lee nor the protesters imputing racist motives to the other, you have to wonder why we in the media did. It proves once again, I suppose, that there is no dispute too clear-cut that the media won't sensationalize it into a racial confrontation.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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