ATLANTIC CITY — For hours, the protesters played all their peaceful cards in the familiar streets of this casino town.

They lay down in front of the police station and said, “I can’t breathe.” They marched past an old Trump casino, through the city’s Outlets, blocked traffic from entering town from the Atlantic City Expressway. They gave raw speeches about the killing of George Floyd outside Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

Police Lt. Mark Benjamin took a knee with protester David Paredes, an Atlantic City native, and promised to meet regularly with protesters in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

“You gotta start somewhere!” they both called out to the agitated crowd Sunday at the steps to the Clayton G. Graham Public Safety building. Everyone took a knee.

But still, at 5 p.m., four hours after the protest began, Atlantic City took yet another blow to its resilient but churning gut, as the looting that gripped other cities began with a brick thrown through the window of Soltz paint, an old business in town.

It was not clear if any paint was looted. But that was followed by hours of looting at the Polo Ralph Lauren outlet on Atlantic Avenue, and then multiple other stores in the city’s Outlet district, then further into the city’s other business areas, onto Pacific Avenue, a Monopoly game of crash and loot. Rocks were thrown.

Businesses around town rushed to board up, including old stalwarts like 123-year-old Dock’s Oyster House.

Police in riot gear appeared, militarized. A family from Northeast Philadelphia hurried back from the beach past looted storefronts on Michigan Avenue, trying to get out of town.

People stand outside of Ralph Lauren in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sunday, May 31, 2020.
Amy Rosenberg / Staff
People stand outside of Ralph Lauren in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Tommy Hilfiger. Brooks Bros. Walgreens. Vans. Nike. Forever 21. All the places the city usually tries to let people know actually are in Atlantic City suddenly were in the spotlight, as people livestreamed the crashes of storefronts breaking, followed by screaming and then looting, in surreal real time dispatches.

Several people, one man bleeding from his face, were taken into custody in the middle of Michigan Avenue by baton-wielding officers, prompting Tnaiah Kitt of Philadelphia to stand in the middle of the street, railing in pain.

“This is not cool!” she cried. “I came here on vacation, I’m going to be 21 in two weeks. My birthday’s coming up. I’m done. I’m fed up."

Lots of people were.

By Monday, as police and business owners all over Absecon Island guarded against possible new protest and looting activity, and people headed to the city’s jetties to catch abundant and enormous bluefish and fluke, Mayor Marty Small Sr. was apologizing to business owners, many of them immigrants, and vowing that the city would come back, as it has before.

He said 17 people had been arrested, six of them from Atlantic City. Some of the others were from out of state. More than 100 state troopers were in town to assist. A 7 p.m. curfew was instituted through next Monday, and police said they were collecting surveillance footage to identify and charge those engaged in criminal activity.

Boarded up Ralph Lauren in Atlantic City the morning after the store was looted.
Amy Rosenberg
Boarded up Ralph Lauren in Atlantic City the morning after the store was looted.

“Inventories were wiped out,” Small said of the 20 businesses at the Tanger outlets that were vandalized. He described his personal anger, as a black man, at the Floyd killing.

"This is not just an Atlantic City situation,” he said. "Don’t lose faith in the city of Atlantic City. "

Small didn’t let the people of Atlantic City off the hook, chastising those who filmed the events as well as those “who take advantage to tear down the businesses.”

“Listen, our city is not perfect,” he said. “As soon as we started to open up businesses to give our economy some sense of normalcy, this happens."

He said Atlantic City would bounce back, as it has so many times before.

“I want to let the world know this is not going to stop us from thriving,” he said.

Volunteers came out early Monday morning to sweep up the broken glass and empty Nike boxes that had littered the streets after the looting. Some came from Atlantic City schools, others were casino workers. A group from the Muslim community center swept up outside Forever 21.

“I’m just trying to help as much as I can,” said Renee Taylor, a dealer at the Borgata. “I work here. I have family here. It matters to me. We just got to keep praying and things will get better.”

Steven Young, the organizer of the protest and a longtime Atlantic City activist, insisted that he had executed a peaceful event, and that the looting had only come after he had ended the event outside the police building with a group self-hug.

But his provocative comment to the marchers to “go window shopping and come back later to buy” was taken in some places as an invitation to later looting. Young said he was saying the opposite, and that’s how it was interpreted as he led the march peacefully throughout multiple business districts.

He said he’d ended the march, but people stayed after he left at the entrance to the police building, standing on pillars, asking for “white police officers” to come out and talk to them, pointing up at officers who watched from upper floors.

Police took five of the protesters upstairs to talk with police brass, and ultimately white officers came out, but by then, the remaining protesters had left the police building and headed for the stores. Some of the people who remained until the end were local with specific grievances against the police; others, many of them young people, spoke about the pain of being black in America.

Young said the protest was critical to send the message he has been trying to get across for decades. And while he did not condone the looting, he said, it is part of the message as well.

“Economic oppression has happened to every black community throughout this country,” Young said. “And nobody is listening to some of those young brothers from here. And that builds up. The beat down of their mothers, their fathers, that builds up. We have to look at the conditions in our community, all this oppression for all of these years.

“This Walk, over 150 stores, we don’t own them. All these stores, no black businesses.”

Back at the police station Sunday night, Police Chaplain Eric McCoy stood on the now empty steps, and said he understood the motivations. He said the key agitators were from outside the city.

“It’s human nature, what people do when they’re frustrated,” McCoy said. “I thought we had the beaches and it was calm, that’s what I told Chief. But these people came from up north and they came to just take advantage.

“We have to figure out how to take care of each other,” he said. “Will it get better or will it get worse?”