The protests sweeping the United States are a response to anti-Black violence — sparked, in part, by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black people at the hands of police and self-styled vigilantes — and the racial injustice that is sewn into the fabric of this country and the laws and institutions that rule it. But some onlookers have been unable or unwilling to see past the material destruction of civil unrest, focusing instead on chaos, riots, and looting — the anarchic work of “hoodlums” and “thugs,” as the president has put it.
There has indeed been looting. (There have also been many documented cases of police aggression and escalated violence, often thinly justified by the professed need to get such looting under control.) Much of the ransacking has targeted big chains or luxury stores, like the Target in Minneapolis two nights after Floyd was killed, the flagship Macy’s in New York, and high-end retailers in the streets of SoHo and Los Angeles. But there has also been undeniable damage done to smaller businesses: neighborhood stores, mom-and-pop shops, and even Black- or immigrant-owned restaurants and cafes — the kinds of local mainstays that have already been devastated by three months of stay-at-home orders during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Two things can be true at once: protests, peaceful or not, are radically, urgently needed; and the feelings of frustration and pain that small-business owners may feel are understandable and valid. As demonstrations continue into their second week, reconciling these simultaneous truths becomes more important than ever.
“We would be lying if we said this doesn’t hurt,” the owners of Boston wine shop the Urban Grape wrote on Facebook after their store was broken into on Sunday night, following largely peaceful protests in the daytime. Their windows were shattered, their cash register busted open with a sledge hammer (but there had been no money inside), and some of their wares taken — this, after 11 weeks of getting through the pandemic, said co-owner Hadley Douglas, one half of the wine store’s husband-and-wife proprietors.
Her husband, TJ Douglas, who is Black, told Eater that the vandalization of a community-centered business like theirs felt “like a slap in the face,” especially after seeing in security camera footage that some of the looters picking through the merchandise were young Black men. He sided with the opinion that some high-profile figures, like congressman John Lewis, have espoused: looting and violence are not the way to go, as much as he understands the anger that may motivate it. “The looting, to me, has nothing to do with the message of the protesting,” said Douglas, who worried that reports of property destruction would prompt a social media backlash of, “See what happens when we let you protest?”
But ultimately, said the Douglases, “It’s a window, not a life,” and the damage, covered by the store’s insurance, is a “small price to pay” for the U.S. to have a larger reckoning about centuries of oppression. It’s a sentiment echoed by other independent business owners who view their properties as collateral damage within the broader fight for racial justice, like the Minneapolis restaurant owner, Ruhel Islam, who made headlines for saying, “Let my building burn” after his restaurant, Gandhi Mahal, caught fire during the protests last week.
“As much as you hate it, the looting, the rioting — it is the voice and the language of the unheard. They’re screaming. We’re screaming,” said Cathy Jenkins, whose restaurant Cathy’s Kitchen was damaged during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the weekend. Cathy’s Kitchen, a beloved, Black-owned neighborhood restaurant, remained intact and protected by protesters during the 2014 Ferguson demonstrations over the police shooting of Mike Brown; now, Jenkins wrote on social media, it feels like lightning has struck twice in the same place, and it is “just as devastating as the first time.”
“I’m a casualty in this war, but I do understand it,” said Jenkins, who credits police officers and protesters for protecting her restaurant from further damage, and her community for raising enough money for her to fix her windows and pay her employees while Cathy’s Kitchen is closed this week. “You hate what happens in wars, but we’ve got to rebuild as a country.”
It’s not that restaurant owners don’t care about their businesses, said James Mark, the owner of acclaimed restaurants North and Big King in Providence, Rhode Island, and an outspoken industry voice about issues like labor and race. But compared to the loss of actual lives, like those of Floyd’s or Taylor’s or Arbery’s? “There’s no way I’m going to prioritize my business or property over the life of a murdered Black man,” he told Eater.
“It echoes, in a lot of ways, our COVID response,” he said, noting that as of June 1, dine-in service is now allowed in Providence — but not in his restaurants. What it comes down to, according to Mark, is the decision to value material gain over the safety of his staff, his guests, and people’s lives in general. Restaurants can be rebuilt, he said. If that means being collateral damage, then so be it.
It is not “fair,” certainly, to ask people who have already had their livelihoods threatened by the economic devastation of the pandemic to continue to offer up their restaurants and shops for plunder on these nights of shattered glass and rubber bullets and tear gassing. But, really, is any of it fair?
For restaurants and other independent businesses to have emerged from the past three months in this state of heightened vulnerability, fighting for scraps from the government? For margins to be so thin, even in the best of times, that workers are easily underpaid or exploited or left without health insurance, because this nation lacks the social safety nets that would guarantee some measure of a dignified living for all? For some protesters to feel they have so little to lose that they — whether they be people of color enraged to action, poor people taking the capital withheld from them, or the opportunistic white “outside agitators” that some people speak of — loot and steal and burn? For this moral and ideological crisis to have rippled for so long, so egregiously, that when the dam breaks during a pandemic, people take to the street in droves, knowing that they risk contracting a virus that the government has failed to contain? For Black and brown populations to be disproportionately killed by the coronavirus, by police violence, by white supremacy? Is it fair that this keeps happening?
No, none of it is fair. It could be called a profound failure of the state and the institutions that are supposed to facilitate the people’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if it weren’t so clear that this is what the U.S. was built on: on stolen land and slaves exploited for labor, on what Bryan Stevenson has called “the persistent refusal to view Black people as equals,” on the fetishization of force and militarization, on the ruthless valuing of property and capital over human lives. It is, as Dahlia Lithwick wrote for Slate, “America’s original, founding sin.”
The act of looting is not violence, not in the same conceivable definition that murdering a Black man is, as Vicky Osterweil wrote for the New Inquiry in 2014, amid the Ferguson protests. “[H]ow do we equate people destroying property to the state mass murdering its people?” Raven Rakia wrote in 2013, also for the New Inquiry. A perhaps more meaningful use of time than parsing the moral distinction between business owners and looters is interrogating the conditions that led to this moment, the broken window, the protest, the dead and gone. “When the state kills, we must ask ourselves how we got to the point where the blame is on anyone but the state and its actors,” Rakia wrote.
As has been repeated to the point of cliche this past week and some days, the issue is systemic. To overturn systems, it takes the small, personal radicalization of individuals — ones who will have decisions to make long after the streets have been cleared and plywood window barriers taken down — but also, more broadly, a revolution. Revolution is by nature messy, not immune from unfair losses and collateral damage on the road to sweeping change. But at the end, after the work, the possibility of a different world awaits.