GREENSBORO – A day of peaceful protest in the city on Saturday ended with a riot that left over 20 downtown businesses shattered and owners shell-shocked.
“It was like a war zone,” Dan Weatherington, owner of Gate City Candy Company, said on Sunday morning.
The riot came at the end of a second protest Saturday evening that followed an earlier peaceful protest. Protesters blocked the Norfolk-Southern Railway crossing on South Elm Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive before moving south along Elm Street.
That is when the first windows were broken.
"They were singing and chanting and being peaceful, and all of a sudden, rocks and bottled water were getting thrown at police," said Tinder Clayton who owns Stitch-FX, a family-owned embroidery design studio which was one of the first businesses to have its window smashed.
As the crowd moved south, Weatherington and Jennifer Graf watched from inside her Vintage to Vogue Boutique across the street. Protesters stopped in front of Weatherington's shop and picked up a red bench he’d put there for customers and used it as a battering ram to smash his windows.
Weatherington said he managed to scare the protesters away.
Christina Dong, owner of the restaurant Bonchon Korean Fried Chicken, said she watched helplessly on her phone as her security cameras caught looters who smashed the glass in the restaurant’s door and enter to take $2,000 dollars from two cash drawers before they smashed a window.
“I usually take the cash home, but I did not yesterday,” Dong said.
Sunday morning, the object used to smash the door sat on the counter by an empty cash drawer. It was a shiny new skateboard truck, a piece that holds the wheels. It most likely came from Stolen Skate Shop a half a block away which was also smashed into and looted.
Zack Matheny, president of Downtown Greensboro Inc., a nonprofit advocate for downtown businesses, said he was monitoring the situation Saturday night when he got a call from a retail owner who was "scared to death."
"All I could tell her was to hide,” Matheny said. “She was trying to protect her life and her livelihood.”
The riot primarily occurred in the 500 and 600 blocks of South Elm Street, which were blocked off Sunday morning so business owners could assess and repair damage. The scream of electric saws and the buzz of drills filled the air as shop owners boarded up broken windows with sheets of plywood.
Cynthia Martin and her husband were busy boarding up Stolen, which belongs to their son John Martin.
“All the clothing, except for one T-shirt, was taken. Some skateboards and skateboard parts and accessories are gone,” Cynthia Martin said.
Nearby business owners, including Weatherington, managed to rescue some of Stolen’s inventory from looters and store it in Vintage to Vogue next door.
The owner of Social Status, a shop that sells popular, high-dollar sneakers like Air Jordans, was not as fortunate. Looters cleaned the shop of its entire inventory. The owner was not in the shop on Sunday morning, but the shelves were empty.
Crooked Cat Cafe, which fosters rescue cats and allows customers to pay to interact with them, also had its windows smashed. But because the cafe has been closed during the pandemic, no cats were there.
Business owners like Clayton were quick to help other owners board up broken windows on Sunday.
“It looks like it was a hurricane,” he said.
Clayton said he was aware of at least one attempt to set a fire.
“It appeared someone had tried to set Mellow Mushroom on fire with shirts they’d taken out of Green City Goods (a clothing store next to Bonchon),” Clayton said.
Mellow Mushroom staff cleaning up broken windows did not offer any details, but owner Jim Waters said in an interview that looters took alcohol from the restaurant. Several business owners said they heard looters had broken into Boxcar Arcade on Lewis Street and taken alcohol.
There were other isolated acts of vandalism in the city Saturday night, but it is not clear if they were associated with the protests.
Someone shattered a window at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum at 134 S. Elm St., and a rock was thrown through a first floor window of Center Pointe condo and office building at 201 N. Elm St. A fire attributed to vandalism destroyed a Mattress Firm store on Lawndale Avenue.
The downtown vandalism and looting was another blow to businesses that have only just reopened following the state’s shutdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“One week with the doors open, and now we’ve got the windows boarded up,” said Kenny Kallam, owner of Boho Salon, which suffered a broken window.
Weatherington was looking forward to opening his candy shop this weekend but said he kept it closed Saturday because of the protests and found himself Sunday shuttering his business behind sheets of particle board.
“Another day when we’re supposed to be open and try to make some money, and we’re having to board up our buildings,” he said.
As South Elm business owners picked up the pieces, they questioned the direction Saturday’s protests took.
“I saw the signs that said ‘Justice’ and ‘Peace.’ Is that justice?” Dong said. “We just want to make a living.”
Roz Fulton, executive director of Community Theatre of Greensboro, which operates a theater on Elm Street, said while she sympathizes with the protesters, the riot left her stunned.
“For us and all the good we do in our community and offer a safe space for people to express themselves, then to come here and find destruction is heartbreaking,” Fulton said as she fought back tears.
Matheny walked up and down South Elm Street to check on business owners.
“The whole thing is a tragedy,” Matheny said. “I’ve seen a lot of broken windows and broken hearts.”