Yemeni American bodega owners and other Muslim groups in New York called for a boycott of the New York Post on Saturday, accusing it of provoking hatred against Ilhan Omar, a Democratic representative from Minnesota who is Somali American and Muslim.
“We refuse to be buyers and sellers of hate,” said Dr. Debbie Almontaser, board secretary of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, speaking on Sunday at a quickly convened press conference in front of the New York headquarters of News Corporation, which owns the New York Post. Almontaser was one of the first to call for a boycott on social media.
The newspaper’s Thursday front cover featured an image of 9/11 with a quote from Omar that suggested she had dismissed the seriousness of the attacks. In an article the previous day, the editorial board had called her “pathetic.”
The quote came from a speech that Omar gave on March 23, in Los Angeles, California to members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization. During the course of the 20-minute address, Omar talked about how Muslim rights came under threat after 9/11 saying “some people did something and…all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
The quote went unremarked at the time but resurfaced on social media when a Twitter user in Australia picked it up, according to a fact check by the Washington Post. It made its way back to America via Republican representative Dan Crenshaw on April 9th. It then spread on social media, where it was widely condemned by Republicans, without the broader context of the whole speech. Omar has since received death threats. On Friday, President Trump fanned the flames with a tweet that read: “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!” with a video of the same Omar quote intercut with images of the 9/11 attack as it unfolded. Omar has since reported an increase in death threats, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly requested that Omar’s security be reviewed.
The Post’s cover may have sparked the boycott, but frustration within the community has been building for a while.
“The New York Post has a long history of this really,” said Rabyaah Althaibani, an activist and member of the merchants’ association, at the press conference. In February 2015, the Post controversially photoshopped a blindfold onto a photo of Barack Obama accompanied by the words, “Islamic terror? I just don’t see it.” Obama had refused to use the term, arguing that groups like ISIS did not “represent Islam.”
Yemeni American merchants believe in free speech, explained Althaibani, but Yemeni bodega owners don’t have to sell a newspaper that they believe is inciting folks to violence. “We’re fed up with it,” she said, “we don’t want to be part of it.”
On Friday, she said, activists in the community begun messaging each other about what they could do. By Friday night, organizers at the Yemeni American Merchants Association, which represents Yemeni bodega owners in the city, had posted a press release on its Facebook page calling for a boycott and writing that the Post’s “rhetoric threatens the safety and wellbeing of Rep. Omar, Muslim leaders, and the larger Muslim American community at a time when Islamophobia is at an all-time high.”
News of the bodega owners’ boycott spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter over the weekend. “This is how we operate,” laughs Althaibani. “We get stuff done fast.”
An early morning tweet from Debbie Almontaser on Saturday, April 13, was one of the first posts on Twitter proposing a boycott and as of 9 p.m. Sunday had over 11,000 likes and 3,000 retweets.
Yemeni Americans held a 1,000 bodega strike against the #MuslimBan, tonight we just declared a boycott of the racist NY Post! Starting tomorrow morning Yemeni American merchants will be rejecting the sale of the NY Post! NY Post take your papers back! #BoycottNYPost pic.twitter.com/dhAPR6eAzn
— Dr.Debbie Almontaser (@DebbiAlmontaser) April 13, 2019
Althaibani credits a retweet later the same morning from MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes with helping one of her own tweets to go viral. Althaibani’s tweet now has over 6,000 likes and over 1,500 retweets as of 9 p.m. Sunday.
Retweets from Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Council member Brad Lander followed.
Two years ago, Bodega owners across NYC (& cheered by neighbors)shut their shops citywide to protest Trump’s #MuslimBan.
Today, that same community is banding together to reject sales of the NY Post at bodegas citywide.
This is what real unity (& NYC solidarity) looks like ⬇️ https://t.co/mj8vtA4Pv5
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 13, 2019
From the folks who organized the #BodegaStrike to help us the see the humanity & identity of our bodega owners & workers, a call to boycott the New York Post.
The Post can print hate & incitement. But Muslim bodega-owners don’t have to sell it. And we sure don’t have to buy it. https://t.co/ijkhxgYNDI
— Brad Lander (@bradlander) April 13, 2019
Yemeni bodega owners are among the best organized Muslim groups in New York. The Merchants Association represents about 5,000 bodega owners in the city and sprung out of a mass protest against President Trump’s travel ban in 2017.
“This was the first time for our community to rise, to exist,” says Ayyad Algabyali, advocacy director at the merchants’ association. “Grass roots are powerful,” he added.
As of Sunday, the group estimates that several hundred Yemeni bodega owners have decided to boycott the New York Post by refusing to sell it in their stores. It may take some time for them to sever distribution contracts with the Post, but in the meantime, they are simply not putting the papers on their newsstands. A bodega in Manhattan might be expected to sell 80-90 newspapers a day, according to Algabyali. Multiply this across the city and the Yemeni merchants’ association might wield enough economic power to get the Post to give into their demands.
The group has four of them: they want the Post to apologize to Omar and the American Muslim community; to stop being a platform for hate; they are demanding that the Post’s editor, Stephen Lynch, to be fired; and they are calling on elected officials to “stop giving the New York Post any platforms to spread hate and racism.”
Neither the Post nor editor Stephen Lynch have made a public statement or replied to requests for comment.
As the press conference ended and the journalists and activists had mostly dispersed, Feras Abou Galala, a Muslim American, and his family, happened to walk by the News Corp offices pushing his baby son in a stroller. They recognized one of the activists and stopped to say hello. Galala says that he has found the coverage of American Muslims in the media and by the president upsetting. And he thought the reaction online to Ilhan Omar’s comments was completely out of proportion.
“I’m so pissed,” he said, “I’m really glad somebody is doing something about it.”