Blue Sole Shoes owner Steve Jamison stood in his specialty store Saturday night trying desperately to protect his store, his baby, from looters.
He watched thieves run past the Chestnut Street boutique hauling armfuls of designer clothes from neighboring businesses in bags labeled Joan Shepp and Boyds. When the marauders attempted to bum-rush Blue Sole, Jamison leaned into his faith and calmly asked them not to.
Please don’t, Jamison pleaded. This is a black-owned business, he said. “It was as if they heard me. They respected that. They walked away. I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t there.”
Blue Sole did sustain damage to its door, and some merchandise — several pairs of shoes and socks — were stolen. But Jamison fared better than many other African American business owners here and elsewhere.
It was just Friday when many Center City retailers delighted in Mayor Jim Kenney’s announcement that the city was loosening its coronavirus restrictions, and that specialty boutiques, clothing stores, and department stores could reopen. We would have to wear masks, and curbside pickup would still dominate. But at least business owners could begin to try to recoup the thousands of dollars lost due to the coronavirus closings.
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That optimism changed Saturday when a peaceful protest of the slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin gave way to violence and looting. Chauvin, who was fired from the police department Tuesday, was charged with third-degree murder on Friday.
Nearly all of the storefronts on Walnut and Chestnut west of Broad were trashed. Display cases were smashed. Buildings were burned. Mannequins were left naked in the streets with their limbs torn off.
Similar peaceful protests erupted into violence all weekend in dozens of American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. On Sunday, looters spread out to King of Prussia, Kensington, and West Philly. The National Guard is here.
What does all of this mean for Jamison’s business and Philadelphia retail now?
“I don’t know,” Jamison said. “It will probably take years for businesses to come back to a healthy level. But I do know this, we are going to have to do better. Black people’s lives will have to matter.”
Jamison, a 54-year-old husband and father, is one of a handful of black people who own businesses in Rittenhouse Square. He used his North Philly grit and good, old-fashioned optimism to secure this business in the city’s most posh zip code. That wasn’t an easy feat for a black man.
But he’s feeling weary now. He’s owned his business for 13 years, been black his whole life. He doesn’t condone the violence, yet he intimately understands the rage. After all, he, too, has had to stand as still as a statue when he’s been pulled over by police. God forbid he makes a sudden move, and his daughter could lose her father.
“Even [Saturday] night when I was in my own store, I had my information ready, my IDs, everything,” Jamison said. “So when the police came in, they knew I was supposed to be there.”
And, like many of us, he sees with his own eyes how regularly African American lives are threatened and brutally ended by people in authority with no repercussions: the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, whose only crime was running through a white neighborhood in Georgia; the death of Breonna Taylor, shot by cops who broke into the wrong apartment. Last Monday, Amy Cooper invoked her white privilege and called the cops on bird-watcher Christian Cooper because he was an "African American man” who dared to ask her to leash her dog in Central Park. She falsely accused him of threatening her life.
But Floyd’s death was the one that made Jamison cry.
“I’m just so exhausted,” Jamison said. “I wasn’t crying for myself. I was crying because of George Floyd. Why did they have to kill him? I understand that anger and frustration. I genuinely understand.”
There are many times in American history when black people, fed up with injustice to our bodies and souls, have rioted: The death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When the police officers who beat Rodney King were found innocent.
Each time the protesters were chastised for destroying their own neighborhoods, but what about the systemic racism that put them there? We cleaned up the shopping districts, put new glass in the store windows. And although the racism was still there, festering, life went on as usual.
This time is different, Jamison said.
Violence is not the only thing threatening black lives. Inequality in the health-care system has been exposed as people of color continue to disproportionately die from COVID-19. And we can see systematic racism winning every day. Just look at the Frank Rizzo statue at the Municipal Services Building. "We feel pain in that statue every time we look at it,” Jamison said.
“We aren’t asking for permission anymore,” Jamison said. "We are telling you we can’t breathe. And if you don’t let us breathe, well, maybe you won’t either.”
When his store reopens, Jamison will continue to welcome all. He will make sure to hire black men as a part of his sales force. And, he says, he plans to remove the shoes from his store window and dedicate the space to Floyd, because, as a black man — as a human being — he has to use his store as a platform to say something. He encourages his neighboring retailers to do the same.
“It’s no longer good enough not to be racist,” Jamison said. “What we need for you is to act against it. Speak against it. Fight against it. Push back against it. When you are complacent, you are complicit.”
Or this will just happen again.