Doing Business in an American War Zone: Scenes From Ferguson
The glimmers of hope for calm in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri were shattered over the weekend. Along West Florissant Avenue--a couple of blocks from where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed Aug. 9 by a white police officer--looters ransacked stores and police resumed firing tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators.
On Saturday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and instituted a midnight curfew in the town. According to The New York Times, by 9 p.m. Sunday, violence erupted as a group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police gathered at a mobile command center authorities had set up in a shopping center. Businesses along West Florissant Avenue were looted, some not for the first time.
"They are calling it 'Lootganistan.' It's a war zone every day out here," says Ibrahim Rammaha, whose store, Sam's Meat Market, got hit for the second time on Saturday night. He says the looters and the people protesting Brown's death are totally separate groups: "The looting is not about Michael Brown at all.This is about terrorizing the city."
By Monday, Gov. Nixon lifted the curfew and called in the National Guard, primarily to protect the police command center. Inc. spoke to more business owners on West Florissant to see how they are holding up after the latest wave of violence.
A call to the president
Rammaha tells Inc. that the second time his store on West Florissant was looted, just before midnight on Saturday, was far worse than the first time days earlier. "They wanted to destroy my store," he says. "We just got a big delivery Saturday morning--beer, liquor, meat, cigarettes. Now it's all gone."
Rammaha says he came to the store Saturday night armed with his M16 automatic rifle to protect himself. Looters set a fire inside but a journalist and two members of the community ran in and extinguished the flames, he says.
On Monday afternoon, Rammaha was cleaning up his store, which is now secured behind wooden boards over the windows, and says he is physically and mentally exhausted. "I wish Obama would come down here. We really need the president on West Florissant," he says. "It is out of control down here and we're all really tired. It's starting to affect the whole state. I'm so tired, I don't even know what to do anymore."
Blood on the ground
On Sunday, a looter smashed the windows of O'Reilly Auto Parts on West Florissant Avenue and entered the store. Rachel Williams, a customer service representative at O'Reilly's, says that most of the merchandise was still there, but the looters left "a couple of puddles of blood" around the store after being cut on broken glass.
"We're very emotional right now. We're just trying to do the best we can," Williams says. "I don't feel completely safe. It's OK during the daytime, but after dark it is not safe at all." She says a security guard posted in front of the store for a few nights, but the shop relieved him of the post after he got "roughed up."
Ken Smith, the manager of O'Reilly Auto Parts, says sales have taken a big hit during the past week. "It's hurting the business big time. We are down quite a bit for the month," he says.
The specter of violence is wreaking havoc on staff morale as well. "We're nervous and worried about what could happen. All it takes is a drive-by shooting," Smith says. "It doesn't have to be targeted at us, but the bullet could come through the window and hit an employee or customer in the head. Stores can be replaced, but a life cannot be replaced."
Business is booming for some
Kizzie Davis and her business partners opened Ferguson Burger Bar on West Florissant Avenue on Friday, Aug. 8--the day before Michael Brown was killed. "It's bittersweet. The first three days, we had to close early because the police were shutting down the street," Davis says. "But by the fourth day, we stayed open until 1 a.m. and our business picked up. Especially at night, we are pretty busy. We have had a full house every night."
Although they have been spared, Davis says looters broke into the McDonalds, Walmart, Toys R Us, and other stores surrounding hers over the weekend. "We are counting our blessings," she says. "But I was getting scared--the violence and looting got heavy this weekend." Davis also lives on West Florissant, so "we deal with everything while we're working and then it follows me home," she says.
As for why her business was not targeted, Davis, who is African American, says it may have to do with her and her partners' race. "I would like to think it is because people like our food," she says. But "on Facebook and Twitter, there's a campaign to support all the Ferguson businesses that are black-owned and I saw people saying to go out and support Ferguson Burger Bar. 'Black owned' has been hashtagged and everything. I am praying for the other businesses who are experiencing getting looted."
WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com
Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.