‘We went from the pandemic … to this’: Business owners frustrated by looting

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Several dozen Milwaukee businesses, some already weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic, face a difficult recovery after being burglarized and damaged during civil unrest.

They included three small grocery stores, multiple mobile-phone stores, a Walgreen’s pharmacy and a clothing shop on the city’s north side over the weekend. 

Some of the businesses remained closed Monday, while others reopened with boarded windows and doors. Civic leaders and social activists denounced the property losses. 

“The rioting and the looting have got to end now. It’s hurting everyone in the community,” said Darryl Farmer with the Black Panthers of Milwaukee.

Charnjit Kaur, who has a Metro PCS phone store and a clothing shop in Milwaukee, said her businesses had $100,000 in losses from looters who kicked in the doors and windows and stole nearly everything.

“They destroyed the building,” she said.

Three of her Stark Foods stores also were damaged.

“I was so scared, and the police came too late,” she said about dozens of looters who poured into the buildings. 

A Cricket Wireless store was broken into twice in 24 hours.

“They smashed the front windows and side windows to get in, and they took as much stuff as they could before they ran away,” said store owner Nas Sarsour.

The business, which Sarsour has owned for three years, reopened Monday with boarded windows. He said he supported the protests, but that the looting made things worse in a neighborhood already struggling with job losses in the pandemic. 

“People have the right to be angry. They have the right to protest. But they don’t have the right to come and break into local businesses,” he said.

The damage occurred during or following mostly peaceful demonstrations by thousands throughout Milwaukee. Protesters were voicing their opposition to racism following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, an African American, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Some of the businesses, including a Walgreen’s pharmacy on King Drive, are in the Harambee neighborhood. Also hit were businesses in Sherman Park and other areas on the city’s north side. A fire was set inside of Milwaukee Harley-Davidson on Silver Spring Road early Monday. 

It was a horrific weekend for some shop owners that could have long-lasting consequences. 

“There will be businesses that, ultimately, will close their doors. We went from the pandemic, that’s lasted more than two months, to this,” said Ossie Kendrix Jr., president and CEO of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin.

“I can’t disagree with the protesting, but I don’t condone the looting and damage,” Kendrix said. “The last thing we want is to have diverse small businesses close their doors as a result of the impact of these protests.”

Police said several dozen stores have been burglarized.

“Milwaukee does not deserve this. The people in our community do not deserve this. And most importantly, our local businesses do not deserve this,” said Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales.

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Police are concerned about the reckless driving they’ve seen after dark.

“Motorized vehicles are 4,000-pound bullets that are operating on our city streets in a reckless manner,” Morales said.

Farmer, with the Black Panthers, said he wasn’t surprised at the damage.

“As we know, when there’s insurrection and rioting, there are no rules. People act out differently in different circumstances and situations,” he said.

“We need to place the blame on not only the people in our community who are doing the rioting and looting, we also have to place blame on why it’s happening in the first place,” Farmer said. “Now that we have Milwaukee’s attention, it’s time for the chaos to stop. Let’s rebuild our community and get some economic development in the impoverished black and brown communities.”

In Madison, more than 75 businesses were damaged or burglarized. State Street was filled with debris. Broken glass from window panes and bus shelters lay shattered on sidewalks. Graffiti covered many buildings.

“When people are angry, they lash out. I’m not saying that’s the right thing. I’m just saying it’s a fact,” Farmer said.

The looting was done by people who don’t care about local neighborhoods, said Tory Lowe, a Milwaukee community activist.

“These small businesses became victims of an organized riot,” Lowe said. “There are people who want change, and there are people who want to criminalize the idea … and that’s why the latter happens late at night.”

He blamed the criminal activity on outsiders. 

“That’s what happened in the last couple of protests. They weren’t organized by anybody that was from here,” Lowe said. “They take people who are upset, and then come in and shape their anger into a weapon of mass destruction. Their whole intention is to cause destruction.”

Lowe said he’d like to see small businesses work more closely with their neighborhoods, so that people will come to their defense when civil unrest fuels property damage. 

“We as a community have to rally around these businesses, and they have to make stronger connections,” Lowe said.

“Once you lose a business, a store in a neighborhood, it takes away resources people need to survive. It hurts the whole community.” 

Ashley Luthern and Allison Garfield of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, contributed to this report. 

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