Jeff Brown couldn’t be more clear. And it was hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with the man after seeing the insides of two of his ravaged Philadelphia ShopRite supermarkets Monday morning.
The time is now for the National Guard to be deployed to the city’s major grocery stores.
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This was Brown’s desperate message to me after I’d walked through the devastated interiors of the phenomenal supermarkets he built and runs in low-income neighborhoods that used to be food deserts. The scene inside his Fox Street and Parkside stores — I saw them both — was staggering: computerized machinery broken, food in piles on the floor everywhere. And lines of cars outside pulling up to shop, only to be turned away, one after the other.
Online orders from coronavirus-quarantined customers, many of them elderly from surrounding neighborhoods, could not be delivered. Other stores in Brown’s urban network also were shut down or in jeopardy for lack of sufficient police presence to protect them.
As Monday evolved into yet another volatile day in the wake of the Minnesota police killing of George Floyd last week that ignited violence across the country, Brown’s pleas took on greater urgency. How could he keep grocery stores open? How could needy people be fed?
“In the last few hours we have gotten police protection at the Island Avenue store, the 24th and Oregon store, and the Roxborough store,” Brown told me in the morning. “But we don’t have assurances that it’s ongoing. And we think that the big supermarkets of the city, especially in the underprivileged communities, need 24/7 National Guard protection. I’m officially asking for that. I have asked.”
By 2 p.m., Gov. Tom Wolf was inside the Parkside store I had just left. Brown called to tell me that he had just spoken with the governor directly by phone there and asked him for the armed presence he’d previously requested only through state and local officials.
“He said he’s going to work on it,” Brown said.
By 3:45 p.m., Brown said he’d closed Roxborough and 24th and Oregon in Philadelphia, had never opened his store in Southwest Philadelphia, and also shuttered stores in Cheltenham and Wyncote in Montgomery County out of safety concerns. By 5:45 p.m., I’d found the governor on a Philadelphia sidewalk. Wolf told me that plans to send either state police, military or other armed support to city supermarkets were being hashed out.
Wolf had come to Philadelphia around noon to see the city where weekend demonstrations left portions of its central business district and outlying commercial corridors destroyed as peaceful daylight protests devolved into worse under nightfall. I also ran into Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw in the parking lot of Brown’s Parkside store. She, too, had come to check out the scene.
This is how important Brown’s supermarkets are to the very Philadelphia neighborhoods most in need of — and grateful for — them.
I asked Outlaw what the Police Department would be doing differently moving forward to protect these vital food supply businesses. She said she would answer such questions more fully later in the day, at a scheduled news conference I did not attend.
Officials would be wise to get a decisive answer to that question sooner than later.
There are no easy solutions to the extraordinary instability that has gripped our city, especially since unwarranted police violence is the ostensible cause. For very good reason, demonstrators are outraged and taking to the streets nationally. The murder charge against the Minnesota police officer who killed Floyd beneath the weight of a pinned knee is cold comfort after the horrifying video-recorded killing so many of us saw last week.
But Brown’s stores are an oasis for the very people most affected by these injustices day in and day out. They feed people in zip codes abandoned by other food chains for years. Parkside opened to much celebration 13 years ago Sunday. It was trashed on its anniversary.
The two looted stores employ 600 people in solid, union jobs — a rarity in the grocery business anymore. They are among six urban stores Brown runs in the area. Even formerly incarcerated individuals are among the workers in whom Brown has placed his money and his trust.
As of Monday, Brown was still covering the closed stores’ employee wages. Layoffs, however, could be inevitable if the supermarkets cannot be kept safe.
“It’s maybe more than 95% African Americans, all from the community,” Brown said of the workforce at the two damaged sites. “They’re people that got a second chance. A lot of them — hundreds of them — are probably going to get displaced.”
And boy, were they scared.
At the Fox Street store around 4:30 in the morning, employees who’d barricaded themselves inside to protect the market fled to the roof.
The building shook as someone set off what sounded like explosives outside. Then, looters smashed through mountains of bottled water cases and forklift pallets that had been stacked by the front door. Some police finally arrived, and made arrests, a store employee at Fox Street told me. But at Parkside, looting continued uninterrupted into the morning.
There were, quite tragically, no responses to 911 and other emergency calls, Brown said.
The scene inside the Parkside location, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation: piles of damaged groceries, pried-open cash register computers, the smell of rotting fish, the stain of supermarket cart wheels trailing red wine streaks through aisles. At Fox Street, looters left behind damaged hammers that failed to crack the store safe. They cleaned out all the scratch-off lottery tickets inside a busted machine by the front door.
“The things in the city we need — like food, medicine — you need to protect that,” Brown said. “They need to protect it 24/7 until this thing is resolved. And then we will invest the money into fixing the stores to get people back to work.”