Black-owned businesses aren’t spared during destructive riots

Janice Wilbourn was in her downtown Atlanta dress shop when vandals struck on Saturday night. On Sunday she was determined to move forward, undaunted by the damage. AJC photo: Sarah Kallis

Janice Wilbourn was in her downtown Atlanta dress shop when vandals struck on Saturday night. On Sunday she was determined to move forward, undaunted by the damage. AJC photo: Sarah Kallis

Janice Wilbourn peered through shattered glass at her renowned downtown Atlanta dress shop Saturday night.

“This is devastating,” said Wilbourn, who with her sister, Carolyn, won the 2015 Women of Distinction Entrepreneur of the Year of Award. “We’re here for God. This is our ministry. This is our family legacy.”

Signs identifying Wilbourn Sisters Designs as a black-owned business didn’t keep someone from smashing the window after the second night of destructive protests in Atlanta. Rioters tore through swaths of downtown and Buckhead on Friday night and were back downtown Saturday.

“We heard gunshots. We heard ‘boom,’” Janice Wilbourn said. ”We hid on the floor.”

She was in the shop again Sunday assessing the damage, undaunted.

“This is a stepping stone. We’re going to take this and keep moving,” she said. “It’s not going to tear us apart.”

The chaos devolved from civic-minded gatherings to protest the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. He died a week ago after a police officer, who has since been charged with third-degree murder, pinned him to the ground. Peaceful marches to express outrage have at times morphed into melees that left police cruisers and buildings on fire and store shelves emptied. Among the ransacked shops have been those with black owners.

Arthur Harden works security at a downtown Atlanta building struck by vandals Saturday night.

“This is a black-owned business,” he shouted as protesters smashed the windows. “What did this building do to you?”

In response, someone spray-painted profanity on the wall as he watched.

Thomas Dortch, an Atlanta businessman and national chairman of 100 Black Men of America, said peaceful demonstrations “can get things done,” but when crowds turned violent, “everything got lost in translation.”

“If we don’t get out in front of this right now, and I emphatically say right now, it’s going to be a terrible summer. It’s going to be a dangerous summer. We’re going to be battling COVID, but we’re going to be battling the frustrations that are out there right now,” Dortch said. “What this could spill into, it’s unimaginable. I never thought we’d see the things that we saw in the 60s come back and rear its ugly head again.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has supported the rights of protesters and condemned the actions of Minneapolis officers involved with the call that ended with Floyd’s death. She’s also angrily denounced the destruction.

“You’re not honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement,” she said during a Friday night news conference with entertainers T.I., Killer Mike, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields and other leaders. “You’re not protesting anything running out with brown liquor in your hands and breaking windows in this city. T.I., Killer Mike own half the Westside. So when you burn down this city, you’re burning down our community.”

Bottoms announced a 9 p.m. curfew Saturday night and another one Sunday, lasting until Monday morning.

“I think that there is a place in America for peaceful protest, and we know that peaceful protests have had a history of changing things in this country,” Bottoms said Sunday morning on CBS’ Face The Nation. “But it has to be organized and it has to be for a purpose. And when you have violent eruptions like we’ve seen across America, then we lose sight of even what we are talking about. Yesterday, all we talked about was how our cities were erupting across America, but we weren’t even talking about George Floyd and so many others who have been killed in this country.”

Leona Barr-Davenport is president and CEO of the Atlanta Business League, a minority business advocacy group. Many merchants have had to close recently due to coronavirus concerns face additional challenges if owners are now having to repair broken glass or replace looted merchandise.

“So this pushes those businesses back even further,” she said. “Especially those that were small business owners.”

- AJC reporter Sarah Kallis contributed to this article