By Julie Shapiro
When 20 teenagers jumped the counter at the Fulton St. Burger King March 6 and started grabbing everything in sight, general manager Mohammed Rahman had little time to think.
Rahman said he told his employees to stay back, worried that the fight would escalate, but Robert Krsulic, an assistant manager, jumped in to help. The teenager who started the ruckus grabbed Krsulic and started wrestling him, leaving scratch marks across his chest, Krsulic said.
By the time police arrived five minutes later, the teenagers had fled.
This incident, as Rahman remembers it, was the worst he had seen in his nine years managing the Burger King, but it wasn’t isolated. The high school students who hang out on Fulton St. have grown increasingly disrespectful and violent, he said.
After March 6, Rahman decided to institute a new policy: The only high school students allowed in Burger King are those who are buying food, and they either have to abide by a 20-minute time limit posted on the door to the restaurant or leave and eat their food elsewhere. Teens said even when they buy their food they are not allowed to eat inside.
“It’s not cool,” said Jaime Lopez, 16, a student at nearby Murry Bergtraum High School. “Everyone is furious.”
Lopez’s friend, Hector “Tito” Salcedo, 16, asked a reporter if he could curse before he started speaking.
“Honestly, I think it’s [B.S.],” he said, with the black hood of his sweatshirt framing his face. “It was just one kid…. There are plenty of civilized people [at Murry Bergtraum] who know how to behave in a fast food place.”
A girl with streaked hair pulled into a ponytail said she used to come to Burger King every day, but now no longer feels welcome.
“They shouldn’t penalize everyone just because a few knuckleheads don’t act right,” she said. “But that’s life, I guess.”
Rahman sees the new rules as the only way to maintain order in his business. Groups of 10 or 20 students used to come in and hang out for hours, playing loud music and roughhousing, even though only one member of the group ordered food, Rahman said. He said the First Precinct has his phone number memorized, since he used to call almost every day. Lately, officers have been posted outside Burger King most afternoons, saving Rahman the trouble of a phone call.
“These things are going on every single day,” Rahman said. “It gets worse and worse and worse and worse.”
Earlier this month, a teenager walked up to the restaurant and kicked in the bottom pane of one of the doors, spraying glass across the floor, Rahman said.
“I asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’” Rahman said. “He just ran.”
Rahman said the March 6 counter incident began when he caught a teenager reaching behind the counter to steal packets of honey-mustard sauce. The student, who was a Burger King regular, was tall, about 6-foot-3 to Rahman’s 5 feet and 6 inches.
When Rahman confronted him about the sauce, the teenager replied with curse words “from A to Z,” Rahman said.
“You say one more word and I call the cops,” Rahman told him.
The teenager responded by vaulting over the 4-foot-high counter and attacking Rahman, he said. As if on cue, 20 more teens jumped the counter, snatching burgers, fries and even cups. The losses totaled about $40, Rahman said.
Jennifer De Los Santos, 15, heard the story a little differently. She said the boy, who is a student at Murry Bergtraum, had already paid for his cheeseburger when the Burger King staff tried to kick him out for causing trouble. The boy jumped the counter simply to get what was his, she said.
“He had a right to do it,” she said, brushing red bangs out of her eyes. “I would’ve done the same thing.”
Several students thought the Burger King was losing business after instituting the new policies, but Rahman said that it’s the reverse the teenagers were disrupting other customers, so business is better now. He likes to see the tables populated by local families, senior citizens and students from nearby Pace University, who bring their laptops and work for hours. When the restaurant gets too crowded or noisy, his regular customers complain and don’t come back.
Rahman wouldn’t mind banning teenagers from his business altogether, but he can’t do that company policy requires him to serve everyone.
However, Keisha Brown, 15, a Murry Bergtraum student, said she recently waited in line at the Burger King, but when she got to the front, she wasn’t allowed to order. “They shouldn’t blame everyone for what a certain group of people did,” Brown said.
Krsulic, the assistant manager, said the Burger King wouldn’t turn away anyone who wanted to order food.
On several recent afternoons, the First Precinct police officers posted outside of Burger King herded the students past the shops toward the subway, keeping them from congregating. Inside Burger King, the atmosphere was quiet, with most of the tables empty. Outside, whenever a large crowd of students circled and the atmosphere grew tense, as many as 20 police and school safety officers descended to break them up. The fights never quite materialized, but they would have if no one stepped in, officers said.
On Wednesday, students didn’t even try to enter the Burger King, though no one was guarding the door. Several dozen students congregated on Fulton St., while police urged them to keep moving. Two N.Y.P.D. school security vans pulled up, and an officer inside the lead van started shouting over the loudspeaker, “Go home!” When the lead van drove halfway onto the sidewalk, the students slowly started dispersing, walking west down Fulton St.
Murry Bergtraum and Department of Education officials insist that Murry Bergtraum students aren’t the only ones causing problems along Fulton St., since several other high schools are within walking distance. However, the First Precinct has repeatedly said that the students by Burger King are almost uniformly from Murry Bergtraum.
“East of Nassau [St.], it’s Murry Bergtraum,” one officer said last week. Several Murry Bergtraum students later confirmed that the people who hang out on Fulton St. are their classmates.
A photo in the Feb. 29 issue of Downtown Express showed a fight between two girls at the corner of Fulton and Gold Sts. The First Precinct initially said the students were from Murry Bergtraum, and Jefferson Siegel, the photographer, said the crowd watching the fight walked to Fulton St. from Murry Bergtraum. On the afternoon of the fight, as Downtown Express went to press, the Department of Education declined to comment on the fight. But last week, Principal Barbara Esmilla said through a D.O.E. spokesperson that the girls who fought were not Murry Bergtraum students.
On Tues., March 11, police say another fight broke out between two girls, 14 and 15, both Murry Bergtraum students, in front of the McDonald’s on Fulton St. Police issued them juvenile charges and then arrested a male Bergtraum student, 16, for disorderly conduct.
Problems have also occurred inside the school. On March 6, police arrested two Bergtraum students, a 16-year-old female and 15-year-old male, and charged them with second-degree robbery. The students were accused of attacking a male student in the stairway, punching and kicking him and stealing his cell phone.
Bhupen Patel, who has owned the newsstand at the corner of Fulton and Gold Sts. since 2002, watches the students trek over from Murry Bergtraum each day. The students curse but generally don’t bother him, Patel said. However, they sometimes steal candy bars or bags of peanuts when he turns his back to reach into the freezer.
“Sometimes is O.K. they’re kids,” Patel said. “If it’s habitual, then it’s a problem…. I don’t know how you can control it.”
At Burger King, Rahman does his best to reason with the students when they are disruptive.
“We try to educate them, tell them what is our problem,” Rahman said. “They never listen they never, ever listen.”
As Rahman described his business’s problems, his quiet voice hardened but his eyes stayed gentle. Recalling the strict rules he faced growing up, he sounded more baffled by the students’ behavior than angry.
“Why put us in this situation?,” he asked an invisible teen. “What did we do to you? We’re just trying to serve the community.”
No matter how the teenagers respond, Rahman tries to keep one thing in mind: “We are grownups and they are still kids,” he said. “We need to treat them as kids, not as an enemy or a criminal.”
The kids, as it turns out, don’t respond well to Rahman’s philosophy. “They think I’m funny,” he said sadly.
With reporting by Jefferson Siegel