Downtown Businesses: We’re Hurting, But We Hear You

When Windsor Jewelry owner Greg Bires got a call from the alarm company about broken glass at his Monument Circle store around 1:15 a.m. last Saturday, at first, he felt relieved. At least they haven’t broken in, he thought, as vandals ransacked downtown following protests against the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. They’re just banging on the windows.

But then, 20 minutes later, came a second call—the store’s motion sensors had been tripped. All of them. “That meant there were people all over the store,” Bires says.

He watched on an Instagram Live video as “dozens and dozens” of people streamed into his store, smashing showcases and dumping drawers full of rings and watches, leaving the carpet so impregnated with glass that it won’t be salvageable. “It went on until 3:30 or 4 in the morning,” he says. “That’s when my alarms finally stopped going off.”

Bires says Windsor Jewelry had only been back open for three days after being closed due to coronavirus restrictions before the looters struck Saturday morning—and then broke through the boards Bires had placed over the busted windows to return for round two Saturday night. “I understand where the protesters are coming from,” he says. “But the people who did this to my store and other Downtown businesses weren’t part of the people trying to get the message out.”

Ben Diallo and Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo, who own J. Benzal Menswear on Washington Street, had planned to attend a Faith in Indiana march at the Statehouse Sunday afternoon with their daughters. The couple, who are black, were outraged by George Floyd’s death, at the white officer’s knee that remained buried in the nape of the black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

But then they got a slew of calls and texts on Saturday night: Friends were watching their store being looted live on the evening news. When they arrived on Sunday morning to inspect the damage, their spirits sunk. “Everything was destroyed,” Diallo says. “It was total chaos.”

The floor was littered with toppled mannequins and overturned tables, a display rack inside the front windows empty save for a pair of gold boots and black sneakers. The looters left a sledgehammer, liquor bottles, and the wood planks they’d used to smash the windows. The shirts and jeans that hadn’t been stolen were strewn in the street.

While Shaheed-Diallo says she and her husband “obviously support” the protests, the vandalism hurts her heart. “The rioting and looting in the evening weren’t connected to the peaceful protests that have been happening during the day,” she says. “Those have been really positive.”

Damage inside J. Benzal Menswear

Diallo says that although he considered displaying a sign that identified J. Benzal as a black-owned business, he doesn’t think it would’ve made a difference. “And, for me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a black- or white-owned business,” he says. “It’s still a small business. I didn’t want to put up a sign because I feel like we’re all in this together.”

Connie Lee, who owns Mikado Japanese Restaurant at the corner of Georgia and Illinois Streets, says she feels conflicted. On the one hand, she supports the protests. On the other, the restaurant, which had its windows shattered, has been in her family since 1997 and was already struggling after trying to survive after two and a half months of carryout-only operations due to coronavirus restrictions.

“I have so much guilt being from a place of privilege where it’s like, ‘Oh, I get to worry about insurance coverage and property damage,’” she says. “In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing compared to what the black community has endured.”

She says that while she’s disheartened by the damage to her restaurant, she understands the black community’s need to speak out. “I’m at the point where I’m like, ‘Let people have their anger, if that’s the only way they can be heard,’” she says.

Bires says that while he was furious while watching the Instagram video of his store being ransacked, he doesn’t blame the police for not doing more to protect downtown businesses. “IMPD had an incredibly tough job last weekend,” he says. “And I’m glad that none of them lost their lives or got seriously hurt.”

Diallo, however, says the city should have done more to protect businesses. “It was clear something was going to happen Saturday night based on what we saw Friday,” he says. “We saw that the curfew helped on Sunday, so why didn’t we have one on Saturday?”

Shaheed-Diallo adds that while the police have maintained a strong presence at the protests, she hasn’t seen many officers elsewhere. “There’s been a lot of focus on protecting government buildings,” she says. “But not businesses.”

Damage inside Windsor Jewelry

As owners of shops and restaurants that were already struggling due to the coronavirus dig out from the two nights of destruction, they’re grateful that insurance will cover some of what’s estimated to be millions of dollars in damage. But Bires says business won’t return to normal until people feel safe shopping and dining in the Mile Square again. “We have to figure out how to make our streets safe and friendly again,” he says. “Downtown finally got to a point where it was vibrant again with people wanting to live and move here, and we need to not lose that.”

Bires says the outpouring of support and concern he’s received in the past week has been overwhelming. “I’ve had multiple groups call me that want to set up a GoFundMe account,” he says. “But I’m not comfortable with people just handing me money. If anybody wants to support me and other downtown businesses, they can buy gift cards. At least that way, I’m giving them something back when they’re ready to come in.”

Like the Diallos, he emphasizes that all of downtown’s small businesses are in this together. “We’re all struggling from the health crisis,” he says. “It’s going to take the community rallying behind everyone that’s downtown to make sure we survive. My store has been part of Indianapolis for 101 years, and I don’t want it to go away.”

Yet even if people feel safe returning downtown, the plywood coverings may be around for most of June. Lee says that even though insurance will cover the glass replacement for Mikado’s windows, the current lead time is two to three weeks due to high demand.

But business owners are determined to push on: Windsor Jewelry is asking customers to call ahead to schedule appointments. Lee says Mikado is closed this week to clean up, but may try to open next week for carryout. The Diallos say they’re working to shift operations to J. Benzal’s Carmel and Fashion Mall locations while they clean up the downtown store, which they estimate will take at least two weeks.

Yet even when downtown begins to look like itself again, Shaheed-Diallo hopes the larger conversation about police brutality and the value of black lives will continue. “We hope the impact of this protest and the looting doesn’t make us lose sight of the reason why people are so frustrated,” she says. “If a change in policy can come of the sacrifice of us losing business and merchandise, it will have been worth it.”