Khader Safi was sitting outside an open door to his tobacco shop on University Avenue in St. Paul on Friday afternoon, a gun holstered to his hip.
He’d had three hours of sleep the night before, as looters broke windows and tried to set the building afire. Armed with weapons and fire extinguishers, Safi and seven family members were able to ward off complete devastation as protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody turned violent.
“I feel so sad,” Safi said, as he planned another sleepless night defending his store. “It was an experience I never expected to happen to our neighborhood.”
In small retail nodes and busy stretches of commerce, neighbors and shop owners across Minnesota reeled from the devastation brought on their lives and livelihoods after a second night of unrest. The bulk of the destruction continued to be in the area around Lake Street in Minneapolis and central St. Paul. Hundreds of businesses Wednesday and Thursday had been damaged.
As fire trucks sprayed smoldering buildings and backhoes pulled away charred rubble on Friday, the sound of drills echoed down streets as businesses rushed to board up windows in anticipation of another fiery night.
“Part of you doesn’t want to do it because of the fear message it sends,” said Joe Hughes, who owns a building used by five small businesses at the corner of Selby and Snelling avenues in St. Paul. “But some of the business owners wanted us to do it. I am praying for justice and I am praying for peace.”
Target CEO Brian Cornell said Friday the retailer, which calls Minneapolis home, hopes to have the Lake Street location destroyed by looters open again by the end of the year.
Cornell said Target had not yet assessed the damage and said the company would redo other damaged stores as well.
But while chains might be able to rebuild, for small-business owners who have already put life savings into businesses and were hurting because of the COVID-19 downturn, it will not be as easy.
Luis Tamay, owner of El Chuchi Market on Cedar Avenue, noted the double blow. His sales have been down about 60% since the coronavirus hit Minnesota.
“We were trying to work through the COVID and then this happened,” he said.
Tamay and others who helped him keep watch outside his market watched with fear early Friday morning as the flames from a fire in a nearby building came menacingly close to his shop. Luckily, his shop was not harmed.
But he was preparing for another tough night Friday, putting boards over El Chuchi’s remaining windows. He and three others planned to stand watch outside the shop as he did the previous night to ward off potential vandals.
He pleaded with the looters not to break in. “They listened,” he said.
The first night of unrest on Wednesday, he decided to leave the shop after hearing gunshots in the area, and looters broke in and stole cellphones, face masks and hand sanitizer.
Barlin Abdi, co-owner of Cedar Child Care Services, was incredulous to discover that vandals had smashed the locked office door toward the back of the day care.
“It’s too sad,” she said. “Violence isn’t going to solve anything. We feel sorry like everybody else about what happened [to Floyd], but it’s not our fault.”
It’s not the America she had come to know. “We know civil war,” she said, of her native Somalia. “They don’t know the value of peace.”
Down the street, Ali Hussein, owner of Sanaag Coffee and Restaurant, was shaking his head as he assessed the damage left by a looter who smashed one of his windows, broke a TV inside and grabbed cash from behind the counter.
Even though the police officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged on Friday with Floyd’s death, Hussein was still preparing for a rough night.
“I don’t think it’s going to be safe,” he said.
Neighbors mourned the losses of mainstays on Lake Street in Minneapolis and in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood in St. Paul, where the century-old Lloyd’s Pharmacy was on Friday only a pile of burnt wood.
Kathy Sundberg, owner of Ginkgo Coffeehouse, spent the past 27 years across the street from the pharmacy, and the fire was still going when Sundberg arrived Friday morning to open up her shop. Fire officials warned her to stay closed, but Sundberg never considered it.
“I wanted to have a place for people to come and gather, to ask how you’re feeling about what happened,” she said.
Along one stretch of Lake Street, there was a burned out business every few blocks. An O’Reilly Auto Parts store, a Foot Locker, and a Family Dollar were among the casualties that were completely destroyed as firefighters continued to hose down flames throughout the day and gawkers took pictures of the surreal spectacle.
The sound of drills and saws also filled the street throughout the day as businesses rushed to put boards on windows that had not yet been covered as they prepared for another potentially fiery night. Many also put “Justice for Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter” signs on top of the boards to show their solidarity with protesters and in the hopes of not becoming a target for vandalism.
And for a second day in a row, an army of volunteers descended on their neighborhoods, with brooms and garbage bags.
“I thought I would help clear the sidewalk so people could walk by,” said Dan Mariska, sweeping up charred remains by a still-smoldering auto parts store. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Though public officials have yet to place a cost on the property damage caused by the riots in the Twin Cities this week, it will likely be in the millions of dollars.
Eight civil outbreaks have resulted in more than $100 million in damage in today’s dollars, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Those include the 1992 riot in south-central Los Angeles after four officers were acquitted of charges in the beating of Rodney King, and a 1980 riot in Miami after a group of Miami-Dade police officers were acquitted on charges of beating a black man to death after a traffic violation, according to the institute.
The Ferguson, Mo., uprising in 2014 — which erupted after Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer — generated about $4.6 million in property damage to 17 buildings, according to St. Louis Business Journal.
Most of the small businesses that sustained heavy damage probably don’t carry insurance that will cover their losses. Just 44% of businesses that have been operating for at least a year have never had insurance, according to surveys by Next Insurance.
For Ruhel Islam, owner of the Gandhi Mahal restaurant, insurance seemed far from his mind.
“Let my building burn!” he said, according to a Facebook post by his daughter. “Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.”
The Gandhi Mahal building, heavily damaged Thursday, burned to the ground Friday after the Minneapolis’ Third Precinct caught fire. Friday morning, onlookers stared at a line of State Patrol troopers blocking the road at Lake Street and 29th Avenue. Among them were Charles Stotts and Kacey White, whose restaurant, the Town Talk Diner, was destroyed in the first wave of protests Wednesday night.
White asked one of the officers to take a photo of the diner Friday morning. It had burned down and collapsed.
Includes reporting by staff writers Miguel Otárola and Jeff Meitrodt.
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113