Intervention – “Corner Stores, Surveillance, and All Black Afterlives”

by Naya Jones, University of California Santa Cruz; njones6@ucsc.edu

As I write, Black Lives Matter protests continue throughout the United States and around the world. All Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter protests are drawing thousands amid news of more violence against Black trans people. At least two incidents that incited protest – the murder of George Floyd and the assault on Iyanna Dior – have involved corner stores, and corner stores figure prominently in geographies of surveillance in the United States.[1] My reflection comes from this moment and from grappling, again, with how to write about Black death (Jones 2019a). Katherine McKittrick (2014: 20) writes that the “task is … to write blackness by ethically honoring but not repeating anti-black violences”, and that one way to do this is “through reading the mathematics of these violences as possibilities that are iterations of black life that cannot be contained by black death”. Below, I practice writing blackness ethically partly by embedding {Pauses}, invitations to stop, reflect, and give reverence. I do not include graphic details or videos.

Corner Stores and Black Life

Most histories trace the first American corner store to 1927, when a Southland Ice Company outlet in Dallas, Texas, extended its hours and offered ready-to-go foods. Most of the 152,720 corner stores in the US are open 24 hours with emphasis on convenient “locations, extended hours of operation, one-stop shopping, grab-and-go foodservice, a variety of merchandise and fast transactions” (NACS 2019). Typically on corners or intersections, convenience stores often stand on both sides of the road to capture traffic from multiple directions. Store sizes range from fewer than 800 square feet/240 square meters to over 5,000/1,520 (NACS 2020).

By definition corner stores mark physical boundaries. These boundaries are also social, constituted by legacies of spatial-racial injustice. Given legacies of redlining, segregation, and disinvestment, corner store geographies are emblematic of Black urban geographies in the US. As numerous studies point out, corner stores are often the main or only source of food or other goods where low income, predominantly Black or other people of color communities reside (e.g. Powell et al. 2007; Treuhaft and Karpyn 2010). However, gentrification and Black outmigration disrupt any notion of a static “Black neighborhood”. In urban gentrifying neighborhoods, stores may serve longstanding residents of color and incoming residents who are wealthier and often, but not always, predominantly white. While many factors influence the “boutique-ifying” of corner stores, market transformations partly reflect shifting demographics (Grier and Perry 2018; NACS 2019).

“Not In My Back Yard” resistance to corner store development often cites negative impact on property values – a common refrain used to deny access to Black or other communities of color (Perry 2020). In industry reports, an (over)emphasis on the contributions of corner stores belies their reputation. One recent report frames corner stores as “community stores”. After emphasizing how only 6% of robberies take place in corner stores, the report highlights the importance of layout and employee training for maintaining safety. Employees are trained to “remain vigilant about suspicious people and potential crimes”, while well-lit stores and visible cameras seek to deter crime and reassure customers (NACS 2019).

{Pause}

I return to corner store surveillance below. But first, a re-centering. Among the many murals created to honor George Floyd’s life, one spans the side wall of a corner store in the Houston, Texas, neighborhood where he grew up (see above; the mural was created by Donkeeboy [Alex Roman] and Donkeemom). He moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for work and as part of a church program about six years ago. In that city, he was killed by police across from a corner store that reported his use of a suspicious-looking $20 bill on 25 May 2020. The video of his murder circulated widely, and details about Floyd’s life are beginning to receive more attention (Fernandez and Burch 2020; Hennes 2020). What especially draws me here is how the mapping of corner store locations, distances, and products alone, overlooks more intimate geographies.

Elsewhere I describe corner stores as sites of relationship where neighbors meet and longtime residents may have close connections with staff (Jones 2019b). Arnold (2020) similarly describes corner stores in South Memphis, Tennessee, as intergenerational “meeting places and information hubs for friends and neighbors”. I am also remembering Alton Sterling. Media reports increasingly compare the Floyd’s murder with Sterling’s death, which also involved a corner store in 2016. Sterling sold CDs in front of the establishment in agreement with the owner, who considered him a friend (Lartley 2018). A passerby called the police on Sterling. Floyd’s memorial at Scott Food Mart in Houston further testifies to corner stores being a gathering place.

This said, Black lives are not monolithic. As Reese (2019) notes, corner stores are not necessarily part of Black food geographies: residents may avoid them with concerns for quality, limited selection, safety, and more. Following Browne’s (2015) use of the word, corner stores present a “predicament”: they can reflect Black life and disinvestment in Black life. When they are part of Black lives, research and news stories capture how people may stay a while. Circling back to surveillance, staying counters how the industry markets itself: to sell “speed of service to time-starved consumers who want to get in and out of the store quickly” (NACS 2019). Such intentions promote surveillance: lingering becomes loitering, and seeking refuge, discussed below, becomes “causing too much drama” (Fitzsimons 2020).

Corner Stores and Disciplining Blackness

Videos of George Floyd’s killing and the attack on Iyanna Dior are circulating widely. Floyd’s murder marks a long history of racializing surveillance in and around corner stores. Browne (2015: 16) defines racializing surveillance as surveillance that reifies “boundaries, borders, and bodies along racial lines”, with negative outcomes for those racialized. Browne conceptualizes racializing through an intersectional lens, such that race, gender, sexual orientation, and other coordinates interconnect. While racializing surveillance is pervasive, what Browne terms “dark sousveillance” serves as counter-surveillance by Black people and witnesses. The bystander cell phone video of Floyd’s death, now gone viral, is a case in point.

Such corner store surveillance maintains a place in Black collective memory. The infamous lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 began in a Mississippi corner store days earlier, where he was accused of making sexual advances toward a white woman. More recently, the case of Jeremiah Harvey evoked comparisons with Till. In October 2018, a white woman called 911 claiming that Harvey, a cis Black boy, sexually assaulted her in a Brooklyn corner store. In-store camera footage shows that Harvey’s backpack accidentally brushed against her backside in a packed aisle. The incident inspired the viral hashtag #cornerstorecaroline. Although Harvey survived, parallels drawn with Till’s lynching underscore the fatal possibilities of racializing surveillance and the visceral significance of corner store surveillance for Black Americans.

{Pause}

As Black Trans Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements lift up, racializing surveillance of cis Black men receives more media attention than violence against Black trans folx or Black cis women (Crenshaw and Ritchie 2015; HRC 2020). We are witnessing the unprecedented mass mobilization for Black trans lives now, amplified in part by the assault on 1 June on Iyanna Dior, a Black transgender woman, at a corner store in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dior sought refuge in a corner store after a crowd collected around her in the street; she was concerned about being attacked after accidentally hitting another vehicle with her car. Store employees denied assistance, stating that she was “causing too much drama”. Video captures a group, reported as primarily cis Black men, assaulting Dior in the store. Originally posted on Facebook, the video is being mobilized to underscore epidemic violence against Black trans women (Street 2020).

By denying refuge, employees surveilled store boundaries. The words “causing drama” are telling, indicative of Dior breaching not only physical but also social boundaries. Her response and gender cannot be disentwined. Rather than trans-antagonism being the issue, she is considered “too much”. Critically, another less-widely publicized testimony from 2019 echoes the attack on Dior. Alicia Love Wood, a Black trans woman, was assaulted on the street before being followed into a convenience store in Washington, DC. An employee denied her assistance, and a group of cis Black young men continued assaulting Wood in the store (Chibbaro 2019).

{Pause}

Racializing surveillance and trans-antagonistic violence in and around corner stores both sustain status quo geographies to the detriment of (all) Black life (hooks 2005). Furthermore, testimonies from Black trans women underscore how racializing surveillance is not static (Browne 2015). In the cases above, Black cis men are not surveilled as they discipline gender. Writing these corner store geographies in relationship traces lines between violences and presses for reflexivity regarding Black cis and male privilege lifted up in the Black Lives Matter agenda, especially as that reflexivity is not practiced enough (BLM 2020).

Corner Stores and Digital Afterlives

The incidents mentioned here possess digital afterlives. Drawing on Shaw (2018), Sobande (2017), and Sutherland (2017), I am thinking of footage from store surveillance cameras, cell phones, and police body- and dash-cams, along with YouTube videos, hashtags, and other virtual makings that circulate after death or, for survivors, in the aftermath of surveillance. The cell phone video of Floyd’s death and the footage of the assault on Iyanna Dior continue to be re-witnessed across media. Academic writing constitutes another Black digital afterlife, as pieces are published, read, cited. In these afterlives, corner stores function as more than “settings”, and they are more than “stops”. They are situated contexts through which iterations of Black life, to repeat McKittrick’s language, take place. Rather than a fresh call to action, they’re reaffirming calls to write Black geographies with care. Amid movement for All Black Lives, how do we lift up life in our writing?

Endnote

[1] In the US, corner stores are known by several names; I refer to them as corner stores and convenience stores because of widespread use of these terms and their use in news media cited here.

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