The police raid on the Eden Center in Falls Church still festers in the Vietnamese community. “August 11” is the shorthand for that day, when the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force swept into 14 bars and restaurants, arresting patrons and seizing cash. They then held a press conference saying the Eden Center was rife with gangs and drugs.
Merchants in the thriving shopping center felt unfairly targeted, and their sense of injustice has been heightened by what has happened in Falls Church City district court since. Eight people have been found not guilty or had charges dropped after their arrests that night. And a ninth person, businessman Frank Huy Do, who was arrested weeks later by Falls Church police when he was surveying merchants about the raid, then held in jail for four hours, also was acquitted of being drunk in public.
With that as the backdrop, the Vietnamese community asked for a town hall meeting with Falls Church city officials, and Thursday night they got one. City Manager Wyatt Shields, Vice Mayor David Snyder and several other city development officials showed up at the V3 Ultra Lounge, surrounded by hundreds of concerned citizens and business owners who voiced their complaints about a variety of topics.
The detente going on there is good, and should lead to improved ties between the community and the city. But there is still another shoe waiting to drop — the law enforcement shoe — and when it does, things may get worse before they get better at the Eden Center.
The town hall meeting was very well organized by the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Washington, which itself only formed earlier this year. Chamber president Binh Nguyen, owner of Present restaurant on Route 50, and lawyer Due Tran, who has been defending individuals arrested in the raids, served as bilingual MCs and kept things moving even as some citizens made pointed comments about the city or the police. (There were also live musical interludes featuring a very talented singer, which you don’t get very often at town hall meetings. I endorse this wholeheartedly.)
But Snyder tried to clarify that the city council and city officials can’t interfere with police investigations. I’m not sure how well understood that was. And two large points remained unspoken throughout the evening:
1) Illegal video gambling was apparently widespread in the Eden Center, and seven people have been convicted of gambling or allowing illegal gambling, all misdemeanors. The search warrants for 14 different businesses show that detectives or informants repeatedly played video gambling machines and received payouts.
2) The gang task force is preparing bigger cases against Asian gang members they say were plying their trade around or near the Eden Center. This hasn’t happened yet, giving Eden Center merchants the impression that the prosecution side of this is over. It isn’t. More charges are coming, and they won’t be misdemeanors, and they may be federal, people close to the investigation tell me. In one restaurant, the task force seized $1 million cash, the search warrants show.
Some familiar with the culture at the Eden Center say that the video gambling was done in part to raise a little extra money to pay the rent. Small spaces cost $7,000 to $10,000 a month in rent. Suong Nguyen, owner of the BC Saigon cafe, said she pays $7,000 per month for 765 square feet, plus a monthly fee for common area maintenance.
“Is there any way the city can help?” she asked the city officials. She noted that the Eden Center’s landlord allows similar businesses to open next to each other, but that they eventually bond over their mutual financial problems and “share the pain.”
Others asked, “Why do the police arrest the people who sit and drink coffee?” “Why did we have the raid here in August? I want to see the proof of that.”
Chu Nguyen, who said he came to the United States 40 years ago, said Eden Center pays $600,000 a year in sales taxes alone to Falls Church. ”Why can’t the city help us to make our business easier? What has the city done for us in return?”
Shields, the city manager, pointed to members of Falls Church’s economic development office sitting with him and said, “There are ways the city can help,” such as training seminars for small businesses, to help them with marketing and dealing with local regulations.
At the same time, the city does not want the buzzing mall to become a crime hive. Some felt the city police, in addition to the gang task force, went overboard with surveillance, harassment and arrests before and after Aug. 11.
On Sept.1, Frank Do, a vice president of the Vietnamese chamber, was in the Cafe Metro bar, chatting with the owner after a day of rounding up versions of the raid from other store owners. Two city officers came in. Do began filming them with his iPad, to which they did not object. Then they pulled him outside and arrested him in the parking lot for being drunk in public. With the help of the iPad video, he was acquitted.
“It wasn’t about me,” Do said. “It was about sitting down the people. We are not criminals. Stop treating us like criminals. They know what they did was unreasonable.”
If there were any Falls Church police officials at the meeting, they did not make themselves known.
After the meeting, Snyder said he thought the gathering was “very helpful.” He said the city and the Eden Center had a tighter relationship years ago, but it had atrophied, and bad feelings were the result.
“It’s very important to us,” Snyder said, “in reality and perception, to have total inclusion and total equal treatment. We feel we have done that, but if the perception is otherwise, we need to address that. I will insist there be new initiatives to assist the business community at the Eden Center.”
Meanwhile, plenty of people will be holding their breath, waiting to see what happens when the gang task force obtains its charges, and whether that has an impact on business — and perception.