Chinatown: Mayhem central? (THE WASHINGTON POST)

In yesterday’s morning links, I took note of an Examiner story about a youth event that city officials have planned for tonight on Chinatown’s side streets. Businesses in the area were concerned about the short notice for the event and the potential for troublemaking it presented.

The lede of the story, by Freeman Klopott, referenced fears that the event could “unleash destructive forces similar to the mobs that have been rioting in London.” That claim was hung on a single quote, by restaurateur Mark Kuller, who said, “[I]t’s a mistake to have a youth engagement event in this area. The police have tried to disperse the crowds in London, too. If you don’t think that can happen in the U.S., you’re wrong.”

That led to a good deal of Twitter facepalming (including some of my own) about the idea that the often rowdy kids who hang near Gallery Place on weekend nights might somehow degenerate into a London-style pillaging mob. At Greater Greater Washington, Dave Stroup took it a step further and called on “concerned citizens” to encourage diners not to patronize Proof, Kuller’s restaurant.

Kuller got in touch with me and other folks who reacted to the article to emphasize that his feelings about tonight’s event were a lot more complicated than portrayed.

He said his quote was taken “out of context,” which is an accusation any journalist hears on occasion, because newspaper quotes are by definition taken out of their context. You hope to provide as much of the context as you can in the space you have. Because Kuller’s been subject to a lot of opprobrium based on his quote, I print his lengthy note below.

The immediate context, he said, was Courtland Milloy’s Wednesday Post column, which dealt with the roots of unrest, from London to “flash mob” crimes close to home. And those latter spasms of violence, such as the recent random attacks in Philadelphia, should indeed be concerning to police, business owners and residents. But it seems to be a stretch to compare those instances of youth run amok to the widespread mayhem, looting and torching in British cities — with the implication being that kids who hang out in Chinatown are looters-in-waiting.

“I’m a big boy; I can deal with it,” Kuller told me. “I know how I feel; I know I’m a good person. I’m not trying to do any fearmongering.”

His note in full:

Mike, I read your post about comments attributed to me in [Klopott]’s article. You and others have misconstrued my words and, more importantly, my intentions. The Examiner quote was out of context - an amalgam of soundbites from a 7+ minute conversation. I said that holding an engagement event in Chinatown was a mistake without input from community residents and businesses, careful consideration of the logistics, and a thorough venting of the timing and location. The reference to London was in the context of discussing Courtland Milloy’s article in Wednesday’s Post where he discussed the anarchy in London, last weekend’s flash mob outbreaks in Philadelphia, and compared recent remarks by our mayor regarding summer jobs to the comments made by Philadelphia Mayor [Michael Nutter]’s comments after last weekend’s outbreak. I never said such an outbreak would occur in DC, but rather that it could in the absence of proper planning. My comments were not aimed at provoking fear, nor were they motivated principally by loss of revenue. Rather, their focus was the process by which this event unfolded, or lack thereof. These are the facts and my views:

1. We and other businesses in the area learned of this event Tuesday morning from the [Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District]. Were it not for them we likely would have known nothing till the street closings actually occurred. If we are talking engagement, how about engaging the residents and business owners who are most impacted by the event to discuss timing, location, logistics, etc., before finalizing plans.

2. We will lose use of our patio, have seriously impeded access to the restaurant, and no valet or street parking on our busiest night of the week. It is not unreasonable for me to consider the well being of my business and the 40+ people who’s livelihood depends on it. Furthermore, we have the daunting task of explaining the situation to 140+ guests, most of whom have had reservations for weeks and are expecting business as usual, without damaging hard earned goodwill. I understand the concept of sacrifice for the greater good – I walk that walk regularly - but we should not have been put in this fire drill position. Proper advance planning and a balancing of competing considerations would undoubtedly have produced a better result for all involved.

3. I am unequivocally in favor of engaging our city’s and country’s youth in a positive and proactive manner. I did not say we should not have a youth engagement with youths gathering in Chinatown. We most certainly should. What I said was that this event was not properly executed – that it should not be done as a popup with no input from those most critically affected and also without consideration of the potentially large logistical challenges – until another business owner suggested the need for porta potties during our meeting with the Deputy Mayor Tuesday there was no plan for them.

4.I do not believe we will witness Friday night anything akin to what has occurred in London and, more close to home, last weekend in Philadelphia. I said that that such violence COULD occur though I thought it highly unlikely, but that thorough and proper advance planning and venting, which seemed absent to me and most area business owners, would further mitigate this risk. I expressly told the Deputy Mayor I would do everything in my power to insure a safe and productive event, even at the expense of personal financial loss, and I meant that.

5. I am deeply offended by suggestions in certain online posts that racism guided my remarks. Allegations of greed are one thing, but racism had no bearing on my remarks or on the similar remarks of numerous African American business owners/managers during Tuesday’s meeting with the Deputy Mayor. Though my remarks were pieced together out of context for sensationalistic effect, even taken at face value there was nothing racist about them. The London riots are being orchestrated by an overwhelmingly caucasian populace. I cringe at having to defend against such baseless claims when I know that in this arena these scurrilous posters possess no greater virtue. I worked and continue to work tirelessly for our great president (including donating Proof’s space and significant business and personal funds), and I devote significant personal time and resources to DC Central Kitchen and grassroots, minority dominated, organizations like Brainfood and Metro TeenAIDS. I suspect these posters acted impetuously out of anger, but in my view it is disgraceful to assail someone in this manner without a lot stronger evidence.

6. I have personally witnessed, within earshot of Proof, stabbings, muggings, theft of valuables from diners on our patio, kids running wildly through the restaurant, and more fights than I can count. I know bad stuff like this comes from a very very small minority of those that gather and that most of the kids who frequent Chinatown on weekends are good kids simply looking for comradery and fun. And mind you, the bad stuff in our hood is certainly not limited to kids – grownups are far worse and more frequent offenders. I recognize that such activity is part of life and part of doing business in a teeming urban environment. While I can’t close my eyes to it, I don’t believe it justifies dispersing youths congregating. My point was simple. Let’s engage, proactively, but let’s do it in a way that takes into account the concerns of local businesses and residents, in the safest, most well thought out manner possible. That was not done here and that is what I took exception to.

Yours, Mark A. Kuller