PHILADELPHIA — As looting spread from Center City two weekends ago, the Scurry family became desperate to protect La’Vanter, their women’s clothing boutique in North Philadelphia.
Ninety percent of sales had disappeared during the coronavirus pandemic, and another hit could finish their small company, near Broad and Erie. Jamil Scurry, a store owner and former Philadelphia police officer, grabbed a large piece of vinyl and spray-painted it with the words he hoped would spare their store:
BLACK OWNED #FLOYD.
It worked. Nearby businesses were broken into that weekend, Jamil Scurry said, but his family’s store was left undamaged.
As protests in this city, and across the country spread, gaining momentum each day, some black business owners put up hastily-composed signs, showing solidarity with protesters and hoping their identity would provide protection.
“It sends a message that black-owned businesses are important and needed,” Scurry said a week later, the sign still in front of his store. “It’s important for the African American community to build each other up and be able to pass down wealth. That’s something that we haven’t been able to do. White America has been able to pass down generational wealth so that makes it easier for the next generation.”
These signs have appeared repeatedly during the modern civil-rights era. During the 1965 upheaval in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, some black-owned businesses avoided property loss by putting signs in their windows that said “blood brother.” During destruction in Detroit in 1967 sparked by police violence, black businesspeople wrote “soul brother” on their windows. After Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968 and people erupted in Washington, D.C, Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, led demonstrators to U Street to protect black-owned Ben’s Chili Bowl.
“What are the protesters angry about? Why does something get destroyed and not others? The signs are explaining [it] to you,” Donna Murch, a Rutgers University history professor, said about the signs that have appeared during unrest that has accompanied some civil rights protests. “People are targeting property as a way to fight social forces. That is what distinguishes it.”
The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, a pastor at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church near Sixth and Pine Street, cautioned against oversimplifying people’s motivations for taking to the streets, and in some cases, turning to destruction.
“Certainly there were people who were there because they just wanted to steal and that’s just who they are, but there were other people there who were driven by other types of forces,” he said. “The moment we keep this simple — it’s black, it’s white, it’s good, it’s bad — then we miss what the real learning is in this moment.”
The coronavirus pandemic had already inflamed glaring racial inequalities, including access to quality health care, housing, education, and work. Black and brown people are more likely to have low-wage essential jobs and a higher likelihood to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, all increasing their risk of experiencing the deadly effects of the coronavirus.
In Philadelphia, black COVID-19 patients are dying of the virus at a higher rate than white ones. Half of the city’s coronavirus-related deaths have been African Americans, though black residents make up 40% of the city’s population.
While businesses across the country have been shut down by the pandemic, experts say minority-owned enterprises will be hit the hardest. In Philadelphia, just 2.5% of businesses are black-owned, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.
The Center for Responsible Lending, a research and policy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C, reports that as many as 95% of black-owned businesses stood “no chance” of getting a Paycheck Protection Program loan through a mainstream bank or credit union, essentially shutting them out from the federal government’s efforts to help during the pandemic.
As protesters marched in anger and frustration over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, some supporters posted lists on social media of black-owned businesses and encouraged others to shop at such stores over corporate chains.
Signaling that your business was black-owned has been a way to distinguish it as “not white-owned, not predatory, not part of the power structure,” said Yohuru Williams, a historian of the civil-rights struggle and a dean at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Black leaders have long advocated for the “black dollar” to stay in the neighborhood, Williams said, “to “harness the economic power of the black community.”
“If you could do that,” Williams said, “you could force white America to recognize the importance of black America in the only language a capitalist society understands, and that’s capital.”
When peaceful protests turned to widespread property damage two weekends ago, some people seemed to take their anger out on corporate chain stores. In 2018, H&M had released an ad featuring a black child in a green sweatshirt with the words: “coolest monkey in the jungle.” In Philadelphia during the chaos in Center City, someone wrote in spray paint on the windows of a looted H&M at 1530 Chestnut St.: “Who’s the monkey now.”
“Buy Black Buy Local” was another message painted on a Chestnut Street wall. A sign outside the Shops at Liberty Place, a Center City mall with many national shops, was spray-painted over with the words: “Philly belongs to the people.”
Between H&M and SoulCycle, someone wrote: “Fight with your wallet.”
From Saturday, May 30 until June 1, police reported 91 commercial burglaries and 50 instances of vandalism in Center City from Third Street to the Schuylkill. This was a dramatic increase from the previous weekend where police reported only three such break-ins and five acts of vandalism, an Inquirer analysis of police crime data shows. There was looting in other parts of the city, including in commercial areas of North Philadelphia, Germantown, Kensington and West Philadelphia.
On the outskirts of downtown, the owners of South Jazz Kitchen, a restaurant on North Broad Street serving Southern cuisine, had discussed hanging a “black-owned” sign on their windows. They decided not to, thinking it wouldn’t make a difference.
“We just never assumed that the vandals would care whether we were a black-owned business or not,” said Wendy E. Wolf, who handles marketing for Bynum Hospitality Group, which includes South.
During that first weekend of protests, people broke more than 20 windows and smashed doors at South and its sister restaurant, Green Soul. It was a hit to the businesses, which already seen sales plummet from pre-coronavirus days.
To the owners, Wolf said, the damage was unconnected to the message of the protests gripping the city and the country. The restaurant told their Instagram followers about it, along with the following hashtags: “#justiceforgeorgefloyd #justiceforahmaud #justiceforbreonnataylor #justiceforall #blacklivesmatter #blackbusinessesmatter”
That Instagram post spread and more people started placing orders, showing solidarity with their wallets. Wolf said sales have since quadrupled.
The restaurant posted again, thanking customers for the increase in orders: “The generosity shown by the members of our community means more than you will ever know.”
On the other edge of Center City, KeVen Parker was at his South Street restaurant, Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant Bar Lounge, two weekends ago when he heard about the looting unfolding closer to City Hall.
“Oh God, please don’t let them start breaking windows over here,” Parker said he thought to himself. The pandemic had already hurt his business significantly, forcing him to lay off three-quarters of his staff.
“Mr. Parker, we need to make a sign and put it in the window,” Parker recalls an employee saying. “And hope that they will just pass by.”
“You may be right,” Parker replied. “Let’s make the signs.”
“BLACK OWNED! BLACK OWNED!” read one sign. “BLACK OWNED DON’T LOOT,” read another.
Later, Parker learned that nearby businesses were vandalized. His restaurant was left untouched.