Arson Hits Black Business Plagued Earlier by Vandalism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In four years, the specter of racial hate has visited Ernest and Dina Allen four times in their Long Beach neighborhood.

On Wednesday morning, an attack all but wiped out their business. When Ernest Allen Sr., 65, opened the door to their health products store, Nature's Sunshine Products on Atlantic Avenue, the heat almost knocked him back.

The arson fire destroyed most of their stock, which was not insured, Allen said. Firefighters estimated the damage at $7,000 to the building and $7,000 to contents.

"They beat us up, but they're not going to beat us down," Dina Allen, 59, said.

Since 1997, the black couple have been targeted three times by vandals. Twice, the Allens awoke to find white paint splashed over the front of their home in the California Heights section of Long Beach. On March 13, someone spray-painted racial slurs directed at Dina Allen.

Though city police and fire officials can't say if Wednesday's fire was a hate crime, they know it was arson, said police spokeswoman Nancy Tabing. Police immediately contacted the city's Human Dignity Program, whose members went to the couple's home.

The program was created last year to help victims of hate crimes, said coordinator Anitra Dempsey. She and a cadre of volunteers throughout the city have handled 20 cases out of the city manager's office. They've helped victims of beatings and arson, getting them counseling, organizing cleanups or acting as a go-between with law enforcement.

Teachers, priests, police officers, professors and others have volunteered, Dempsey said.

The Allens have had the services of the Human Dignity Program before.

"It's difficult for me because I feel like I know them," Dempsey said.

The Allens have run their successful business in Long Beach for 22 years, attracting diverse customers, Dina Allen said.

"When you're sick, you don't care who holds your head, as long as they help," she said.

They've raised four children in Long Beach, including a police officer and a daughter who works in the motion picture industry.

Until four years ago, they never felt targeted because of their race. Ernest Allen said he suspects his family's success may have something to do with it.

"I think some people have the attitude that it's OK if you live here, but don't you dare have a business here too, and don't you dare look prosperous as a black person," he said.

The Human Dignity volunteers will help the Allens clean up their business.

"I hope people get the message that this city will fight hate crimes with all the resources at our disposal," Dempsey said.

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