For vandals, black-owned businesses not exempt during Atlanta protest

Credit: David Wickert

Credit: David Wickert

Sisters Janice and Carolyn Wilbourn peered through the shattered window of their dress shop Saturday night, assessing the damage of a chaotic evening.

The women picked  carefully through the broken glass, picked up a mannequin that just hours prior had been displaying one of their custom dresses, and carried it into the store.

COMPLETE COVERAGE | Atlanta Protests

“This is devastating,” Janice Wilbourn said through the damaged window. “We’re here for God. This is our ministry. This is our family legacy.”

The black-owned shop, Wilbourn Sisters Designs, was caught in what became the second night of violent protests in downtown Atlanta.

On Saturday, marchers took to the streets in droves to protest racism and police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Floyd, who had been living in Minnesota, died after a police officer kneeled on his neck and head for minutes, pinning him down. The officer has been charged with third degree murder.

MORE | Second day of Atlanta protests ends with property damage, 157 arrests

But by nightfall, Atlanta’s protest had grown disorderly. Some marchers began confronting police officers while others began vandalizing and looting businesses.

Janice Wilbourn said she was inside the shop with her friend, Janice Welch, when they heard the sound of chaos in the streets.

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

The sisters are two of seven siblings from Jackson, Tennessee, who were taught by their mother to sew. Wilbourn Sisters Designs in Atlanta was founded to "continue our Mother's legacy by passing on the trade of sewing and designing to the next generation," according to the company's website. The dressmakers in 2015 won the Women of Distinction Entrepreneur of the Year of Award.

MORE | Atlanta Mayor Bottoms extends nighttime curfew

The Wilbourns had hung hand-written signs identifying the shop as a black-owned business. However, those signs did not stop someone from throwing a rock through the boutique’s display window, breaking it to pieces.

Other businesses, including black-owned ones, were damaged in similar fashion throughout the city.

RELATED | Atlanta protests: Demonstrators defy Atlanta curfew

Arthur Harden, a private security guard, yelled at marchers who had smashed the windows of a building on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue.
"This is a black-owned business!" he said. "What did this building do to you?"

Leona Barr-Davenport, president and CEO of the Atlanta Business League, said the impact of the protest on local businesses “is one that will be felt financially, especially as we’re trying to come out and work our way out of a pandemic.”

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

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."
Dortch said there are "systemic issues and poverty that's got to be addressed. We can no longer turn a blind eye to poverty in this city and this state."

MORE | Atlanta's Downtown and Buckhead gauge economic damage after protests

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Sunday said that the city would be put under a curfew from 9 p.m. 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 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.”

In other news: 

Channel 2's Matt Johnson and Audrey Washington gives us an update of what has been happening in downtown.