Austin businesses damaged by looters

June 3, 2020
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The Dollar Tree at 5469 W. North Ave. was among many Austin businesses looted in recent days. | Photo by Devin Sims

Between 5 and 6 p.m. Sunday, Chicago ran out of police officers.

Devin Sims, owner of The Roasted Leaf Cigar and Coffee Cafe, at 5925 W. Chicago Ave., realized that as he listened to the police scanner from his family’s backyard and heard a dispatcher say: “We have no more available units in Chicago.”

There’s no question in state Rep. La Shawn Ford’s mind that police, city officials and residents “lost total control of the situation,” and the result is devastating.

After talking to several officers in the area, Ford told Block Club Chicago it appeared police had “thrown their hands up” and weren’t protecting the small, family-owned business on the West Side.

Ford told Block Club Chicago that without access to the same insurance, capital and loans big-box stores have, business owners will struggle to rebuild.

Sims identified multiple businesses along the Chicago Avenue corridor that were ransacked from Saturday to Tuesday as widespread looting spread from downtown to other parts of the city and suburbs after peaceful marches over the killing of George Floyd.

Businesses hit by looters included City Sports at Chicago and Lotus; a liquor store at Chicago and Lorel; a liquor store, a phone store and the gas station at Chicago and Laramie; and a liquor store and the currency exchange at Chicago and Cicero.

Sims, whose cigar and coffee shop was spared, said the looters were out exclusively for themselves. “They’re targeting stores,” he said. “The liquor stores, the shoe stores, the clothing stores, that’s all for personal gain.”

While looting and damage occurred over all three nights from Saturday through Monday, Sims said the most damage occurred on Sunday.

At 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Sims was heading home from Roasted Leaf, which is under renovation after a March 10 fire, when a neighbor called to alert him people were looting.

When Sims returned to his business, he saw a group of people moving down Chicago Avenue with a sledgehammer and an axe, knocking the locks off businesses. Sims said there was no way to tell who they were. Once they knocked the lock off and broke the windows, everyone on the street ran into the store.

Even after police responded, Sims said of the looters, “they didn’t stop. They didn’t care.”

It’s not clear how many calls the Chicago Police Department’s 15th District has responded to since the looting broke out; the department did not respond to a request for comment.

Sims said at the intersection of North and Central avenues, the Save A Lot grocery store, Walgreens and a liquor store were all looted.

“Where are you going to get your groceries?” Sims asked. If your kid gets sick and you need to get medicine for them, “you can’t go to the Walgreens, right. Cause they busted in all the Walgreens, he said.

That’s the Walgreen’s where Chicago Sun-Times columnist Maudlyne Ihejirika’s medically fragile son gets his medication.

The destruction, arson and looting seen over the last few days “has caused community heartbreak on a level not seen since the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” she wrote in the Sun-Times this week. “Parts of the West Side have never recovered, still struggling to bring back businesses like the ones destroyed Sunday in the Madison Avenue business district.”

Terry Redmond, of South Austin Neighborhood Association, and her husband Lee witnessed some of that destruction on Madison – at the Prestige Liquor store in the 4200 block of West Madison Street.

Redmond said she saw a group of about 20 people, both youths and adults, crowd around the liquor store, which she said closed about 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the advice of the 15th Police District.

From their home, the Redmonds saw people try to break in through the roof of the store, and later – from about 6 to 10 p.m. – people were walking down the adjacent alley with cases of liquor.

Redmond said police would arrive as more cars and people showed up at the store and the looters would scatter, but once everything settled down, it would start all over again.

“We understand the anger and frustration, however, that needs to be directed much more constructively,” Terry Redmond said in an email. “People need to be more civically engaged in their community, their city and their state.

“This is a time to come together to organize, to strategize and focus on equality laws,” she said. “Protesting brings attention but does not solve the root problem.”

Malcolm Crawford, head of The Austin African American Business Network Association, said the West Side hasn’t seen much of the state response; earlier this week Gov. J. B. Pritzker began deploying hundreds of Illinois National Guard members at the request of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Instead, it’s been Chicago Police and deputies from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.

Crawford said while there has been a lot of looting on the West Side, locally owned businesses have largely been spared.

“All of the Family Dollar stores, every one of them in Austin, is down. Boost Mobile, down. Every single one of them are [sic] gone.”

Crawford, who operates Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center at 5820 W. Chicago Ave., said it makes a difference whether business owners live in the community, versus coming in to make money then leaving.

Tuesday morning, he was ready with toiletries and brooms for people that needed them, and Brown’s Soul Food at 5254 W. Chicago Ave. was making coffee for people. Cleanups were planned for Wednesday.

Crawford said COVID-19 gave local businesses a little cover because many of them have been closed. He noted Tuesday morning he was the only person in the 11,000-square-foot building that Sankofa operates out of; usually, the place is teeming with people. The building had not been looted.

It helped that local police used a community policing strategy that gave them more direct access to businesses and residents, and that helped them identify people who were not from the area and causing trouble, Crawford said.

“I’m not a big fan of the police, but at this point they did a great job,” Crawford said Tuesday.

The stretch of Chicago Avenue where Crawford operates Sankofa has been targeted by the city for economic development under its INVEST South/West initiative.

In April, the Chicago City Council approved $7.3 million to provide technical assistance and project management support to about a dozen West and South Side areas, including Chicago Avenue from Cicero to Austin Boulevard.

When asked what more the city could be doing, Crawford said, “Instead of talking about it and strategizing about it, it’s time to do it. It’s time to actually put these businesses up and let’s get moving … we’re all talked out.

“It’s time to actually get to work.”

Mateusz Janik contributed to this story.

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