For Minneapolis restaurateur Rashad West, 2019 was the absolute best. Business at Dragon Wok, his Southside Minneapolis Asian eatery, was booming. After four years, West’s takeout joint was outgrowing its modest 1,100 square feet. This was when fate struck and put the 30-year-old African American in position to make history. Explicit Black history.
A neighboring proprietor looking to retire offered West the opportunity to move Dragon Wok a few blocks east, down 38th Street, from Nicollet to Chicago avenue. The new real estate tripled his space and enabled him to offer a new service: indoor dining. In January, he moved into his new digs; his new doors opened in early March. Then Covid-19 hit.
Unlike many Americans, West didn’t panic. His concern ran towards the community first and his business second. “I was thinking that I didn’t want the Minneapolis economy to collapse,” says West. “Also, if there are no jobs then there’s no money — and if there’s no money, there’s no takeout.”
Fortunately, Dragon Wok had built its name on exceptional customer relations. “If you’ve been there more than once, you’re like family,” says longtime Dragon Wok patron, Ashlee Mueller. If any local spot was built to withstand a national pandemic, it was West’s. And that’s not even taking into account the food; while a menu featuring Kung Pao chicken and curried Singapore noodles normally doesn’t appear in a Black-owned restaurant, West swears his boasts the best lo mein and fried rice in all 50 states.
Like many African Americans, he assumed the coronavirus would be his biggest obstacle in 2020. And it might have been, until a surreal pairing of quarantine and technology changed everything. Not long after footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder spread across the country, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, sparking an inferno of demonstrations and unrest — and it happened practically on West’s doorstep.
West was disgusted. Witnessing the final moments of Floyd’s life ignited a single question from within: Why does this keep happening to us?
On May 25, for nearly nine minutes, Derek Chauvin’s knee pinned George Floyd’s neck into Chicago avenue. Floyd had been apprehended and arrested minutes before — directly in front of Dragon Wok — for allegedly giving a teenage clerk at the neighboring Cup Foods grocery store a counterfeit bill. Dragon Wok’s operational hours were still abbreviated at the time, and on that particularly terrible Monday, the restaurant was closed. West had no idea.
The next morning, he received a flurry of texts and calls about someone dying across the street from his restaurant; the death, he heard, was a result of the perpetrator resisting arrest. His landlord encouraged him to check the security surveillance camera. The footage showed an extremely distressed but consistently compliant Floyd. It debunked any rumors of Floyd’s resistance and revealed that he was, in West’s words, “not treated like a human being.”
West was disgusted. Witnessing the final moments of Floyd’s life ignited a single question from within: Why does this keep happening to us? “I’m like, here we go again,” he says in reflection. “This whole narrative about this man fighting with police and doing this and that and none of that was true.”
He hadn’t yet watched the original footage of Chauvin — captured by a bystander, Darnella Frazier — kneeling on Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds. He didn’t know that Frazier’s video started long into the encounter, and that his own surveillance camera would be the first to directly contradict the officers’ statement that Floyd had physically resisted. Regardless, he felt it was his duty to make his findings public. “I didn’t want people throwing dirt on this man’s name about what he might have been doing,” says West. “For once, I had an opportunity to put a stop to the BS.”
Before West began being pulled over by Minnesota police for driving a BMW M3 while young, Black, and successful — “I knew they just wanted to see me react,” he says — he hadn’t had any negative incidents with local law enforcement. He was an ambitious teenager who managed to juggle two jobs and a four-year scholarship to play cornerback at St. Cloud State University. A sneakerhead since the age of 10, West transferred his passion for kicks into his work; after climbing the managerial ladder in Finish Line’s Mall of America location, he was offered stores in Milwaukee or North Dakota to run. The opportunity came with an ultimatum, though: leave his second job as a cook at the southern Minneapolis Chinese Cambodian restaurant Hot Wok. He left Finish Line instead.
Before entering the restaurant industry, West had zero experience in the kitchen. In fact, his favorite food is pizza. Yet, the culinary and hospitality trade seemed to spark something inside him that sneakers and football never had. There were practical considerations, too: his girlfriend and future wife Ashley was expecting their first son. “I didn’t see myself having a 9-to-5,” he says. “I just knew I had this kid coming and the lifestyle that I wanted required me to build financial freedom.”
Ashley West is a social worker of Cambodian descent. The two have been together for 14 years; it was Ashley who first worked as a front-of-the-house hostess/manager at Hot Wok. The owner took a liking to West and asked him if he was scared of fire — then taught him how to build a business with a wok. “Rashad was just born with an entrepreneurial personality,” she says.
That personality was bred and continuously fostered by his New Yorker parents: Mom was a childhood development scholar from Queens, Dad an entrepreneur and Air Force veteran from Staten Island. Before retiring, both parents raised their only son to think tirelessly, like a boss. Although their household classified as upper middle class, the Wests saw that status as something they had achieved — but wasn’t automatically granted to their children. “They would always say: ‘We worked our asses off to get you to where you are now. Now you need to figure out what you’re going to give to yourself.’”
Although his wife’s anxiety was sky-high, Rashad knew the decision wasn’t about him. Nor was it solely about today or yesterday. More than anything, he did not want his two young sons to grow up in a world that resembled 2020.
Mom was notorious for making young West rewrite entire school papers if his handwriting wasn’t legible. This taught him to economize time by executing with pace and patience. His father required that he earn everything he wanted. When West asked for a Playstation and his dad obliged, the new console remained on top of the refrigerator until he had completed enough chores to match its value. “I’d be like, ‘I’ve been cutting the grass and washing the dishes for a week,’” West says, “And he’d say, ‘I know, but this thing cost me $200. You got a long ways to go, kid.’”
After West had worked a few full-time years at Hot Wok, his boss and mentor announced his desire to retire, and suggested that he open his own eatery. Remembering how much his mother stressed fully committing to goals, West sold off his rare sneakers. Stocked with Solar and Red October Yeezys, Galaxy Foamposites, and “damn near every Jordan,” the collection brought in $18,000 — enough for the 24-year-old to make a down payment on his very own emporium.
Today, it appears that West’s purpose wasn’t solely cooking up Asian cuisine and modeling a successful Black-owned business; it was assisting in the defanging of police departments whose practices so frequently devalue Black lives. The move made him the savior that Emmett Till, George Stinney Jr., Sandra Bland, and so many other African Americans did not have before their unjust and untimely deaths. “The only reason I put that video out was to preserve the truth,” says West. His voice lowers as if he’s thinking out loud. “I know how that can get twisted.” You can hear in his voice how much he hated being lied to about George Floyd’s death.
Yet, before he could do his part, he had to first speak with his better half. “I was really shaken up,” says Ashley. “I knew that he was doing the right thing — my concern was how the world would respond to it. Sometimes when you’re doing the right thing you have a percentage of people who would say otherwise.”
That percentage of people got drowned out for a spell. Once West posted about the video on his Facebook page and granted the Washington Post a copy of the footage (after receiving a promise that they wouldn’t alter it), the Twin Cities took over, putting their collective anger into riotous action. It set Minneapolis ablaze for the rest of the week before sending a wildfire into every single so- called United States. Although the four officers involved were fired the day after the killing, enraged locals still burned down the MPD’s Third Precinct station. Civilians from St. Paul to Minneapolis torched fast-food and retail chains, destroying several gas stations — including the one catercorner to Dragon Wok. “I knew people were fed up, but I didn’t know it would get that crazy,” says West.
Although his wife’s anxiety was sky-high, West knew the decision wasn’t about him. Nor was it solely about today or yesterday. More than anything, he did not want his two young sons to grow up in a world that resembled 2020. “Maybe this will make it easier for my kids to walk the streets 15 years down the line without having to change the way they behave when they see members of law enforcement,” he says.
Chauvin and his squadmates have their defenders, of course. Some are invested in maintaining a corrupt culture of policing. Others are obsessed with preserving racial supremacy. And since making the video public, West has received his share of anonymous threats. While admittedly concerned, he isn’t talkative on the subject — nor is he surprised by the backlash. “People who have clouded judgement or are morally sick can’t understand that this isn’t anything that should be debated,” he says. “Black men need to stop being killed in the street. Flat out.”
Speaking up and showing out for both human and civil rights isn’t without its dangers — especially when you’re being quoted by the New York Times and appearing on CNN Tonight. Newfound notoriety can make the unforgiving job of resisting evil and imperialism even more hazardous: many have been harmed or worse because they were on the right side of the fight. Yet, West stands so firm in his responsibility as a Black man that his fear renders him more cautious than scared. “I knew once I put my face out there and stood for something there would be people on the other side,” he says. “So I’m just prepared to protect myself, my family, and all my employees at all costs.”
Today, Rashad West is emotionally exhausted. His contribution to the aftermath of the George Floyd killing has been “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with as a businessman.” In place of his normally upbeat disposition is a fresh solemness. His usual warm smile is less frequent these days, friends say. “It’s going to be a long time until Rashad can take time off and really process all of this,” says Mueller. “It’s at the front of his mind every single day.”
When he isn’t slammed at Dragon Wok, West strolls George Floyd’s memorial observing the visitors. Once in a while, he’ll whip up a dish for a homeless neighbor. Those who live nearby know him; the ones who come from farther away are unfamiliar with the young entrepreneur turned 2020 hero. They’re oblivious to the fatigue in his brown eyes or his heavy shoulders, weighed with a hope that his video helps condemn the men who killed George Floyd. “There’s no way a jury shouldn’t give this man and his family justice,” says West. “As far as evidence goes, it’s black and white.”