It had only been two days since Lilliannia Ayers reopened her Queen Hippie Gypsy store in downtown Oakland, California, before her front window was smashed and her storefront was spray painted Friday.
On Saturday night, she and neighbors stayed up all night to protect their stores – hopeful the protest movements across the U.S. would not destroy her business so soon after it suffered a devastating hit from the pandemic shutdown.
“It goes beyond the window,” she said. “We’re losing sales every day. We’ve already been impacted by covid. We’ve lost so much more.”
Similar scenes of destruction have created chaos and concern along the path of the nation’s protests over the death of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis. That’s pushed brick-and-mortar retail and restaurant industries, already hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, to the center.
Retailers and other businesses in cities across the U.S., including the Bay Area, the District of Columbia, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, experienced broken windows, thefts and other violence over the weekend.
The actions prompted a number of businesses to shut their doors and raised questions about how exactly the actions relate to the protesters, many of whom were peaceful.
Walmart on Sunday closed several hundred stores due to potential protests. Amazon said it had adjusted routes or scaled back delivery operations in some cities, while Apple closed an unspecified number of stores on Sunday. Target said it temporarily closed six stores in California, Minnesota, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
The Mayor of Philadelphia ordered all retailers to shut down Sunday.
The closures come after many U.S. retailers and restaurants already cut back on operations or shut completely in March due to restrictions implemented to protect people from the coronavirus pandemic. Those weeks of closures have already pushed some companies into bankruptcy, including J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus, plus smaller businesses that couldn’t survive a prolonged downturn.
“In normal times, businesses would probably take it in their stride,” said Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at GlobalData Retail. “But coming off the back of the pandemic, it’s devastating.”
Destruction is adding a new economic wrinkle for businesses already struggling. But the actions across the U.S. in protest of police brutality has also prompted many affected businesses to speak out in support of the protests.
“Since we opened our doors, Target has operated with love and opportunity for all. And in that spirit, we commit to contributing to a city and community that will turn the pain we’re all experiencing into better days for everyone,” Minneapolis-based Target chief executive Brian Cornell wrote in a public memo.
Starbucks executives hosted forums for employees to talk about the issues and their feelings. Best Buy’s senior leadership team – which stated “We are as a group, by and large, not people of color” – penned a note pledging to commit to diversity and inclusion goals.
“Another black man in America died senselessly on Monday, and it happened only miles from where many of us live,” the note read. Best Buy is based in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield.
Meanwhile, as Saturday turned into Sunday, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue thoroughfare was dotted by shattered windows and piles of glass. Collateral included a TD bank, a Men’s Wearhouse, and the Apple Store, where a single panel of its tempered glass facade had cracked but not broken. The walls along the route were filled with graffiti.
Along Broadway in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, retail stores including the North Face and Journeys were looted, storefront windows smashed through by skateboards or other heavy objects. Several banks had shattered or completely smashed out windows.
Later Sunday, New York’s famous Fifth Avenue shopping area took a hit, as windows at retailers including Kate Spade, Tory Burch Sport and Victoria’s Secret were smashed.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, D, delivered an impassioned appeal to protesters Friday, saying more than half of business owners in the metro area are minorities.
“You’re not protesting anything running out with brown liquor in your hands and breaking windows in this city,” she said. “So when you burn down this city, you’re burning down our community.”
In Los Angeles, looters ran off with pricey sneakers from the boutique Flight Club after that city’s protests turned violent, according to media reports.
In Scottsdale, Arizona, YouTuber Jake Paul was caught on video watching looters pick apart a mall.
And in Seattle, there was the widely shared video on Twitter of a young woman walking down the sidewalk carrying an entire strawberry-topped cheesecake on a plate after a Cheesecake Factory was looted during protests.
The theft of T-shirts, computers and food can appear to run counter to the message from demonstrators who have filled streets in cities and towns from coast to coast following the death of George Floyd, some professors who study the topic said. The looting also can feel distinct from the unrest’s vandalism and property destruction.
But, said UCLA historian Robin Kelley, “every single rebellion and uprising has included it.”
Looting is often the result of normally law-abiding people taking advantage of a chaotic moment, especially when they are suffering economically, Kelley said.
It occurred often during the violent unrest in American cities of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It happened after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. It was a part of the 1917 East St. Louis riots, when white people killed and stormed the homes of black residents – stealing rugs and lamps, Kelley said.
Now, during the covid-19 pandemic and 40 million people having filed for unemployment, “I was shocked there wasn’t more looting,” Kelley said of the current protests. “We’re dealing with an economic crisis.”
Stanford sociology professor Matthew Clair said the term “looting” isn’t the best word to use for many of the protesters’ actions. That term can mischaracterize what is really going on.
“Many of these protests, at least those motivated by the killing of George Floyd, should be understood as black people’s refusal to stand by while their brothers and sisters are murdered by the state,” he said. “If the history of this country is any guide, protests like these are often necessary to bring about positive, transformative social change.”
Ayers, who is African American, said she didn’t believe the people protesting Floyd’s death were the ones that damaged her store, which depicts an African-American woman on its front window.
“Why on earth if people were here for the movement, why would they destroy my business-front?” she asked.
Most businesses will be able to rely on insurance for much of the damage, said Forrester retail analyst Sucharita Kodali. Fewer people are shopping in stores right now, so lost sales are less problematic in a way.
The impact will be less ruinous for big companies that were damaged such as Apple and Target, retail analyst Saunders pointed out, because they can afford to repair and close stores for a while. But for small businesses insurance money may still not be enough to survive combined with the pandemic.
“Kicking a man once he’s down, that’s what it comes down to,” he said.
The weekend’s actions were reminiscent of the Los Angeles Rodney King protests in 1992, said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA. In this case, though, the destruction did seem to take place in more affluent neighborhoods, he said. Some business owners put up signs noting it was a minority-owned store to try to be spared damage.
Not all of them were saved, according to reports on social media.
The protests are not just a critique of police brutality, Hunt said, though that is the main issue at play.
“It’s an explosion of frustrations and anger about a range of interconnected structures in our society that have disproportionately undermined the livelihoods of people of color, particularly African Americans,” he said.
Kelley, the historian, lives just a few blocks from where several stores were looted in The Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles, including an Apple store. He said looters are often distinct from protesters. But they can be driven by the same things.
“They are taking out their frustrations and depravations,” Kelley said. “It’s not a good strategy, but I understand it.”
Many business owners continued to rally for the cause, even amid damage. Michelle Brown tweeted a strong message as her D.C. restaurant Teaism burned.
“Before anyone puts a single word in our mouths. Black lives matter,” she wrote.
“It was heartbreaking,” Brown said. “But this moment is not about us.” Brown wants her customers to stay focused on the intense suffering sweeping the country instead of the damage done to her restaurant, which she says will recover in time.
“Any kind of issue like this seems pretty minor,” she said. “We have been through three months of being closed, we have seen 100,000 people die. I think the protests are great, and I think they are warranted.”