As nationwide protests against the killing of Black Americans by police continue, Inc. has asked Black business leaders in or near hot zones to tell us what they are experiencing.
Just before 10 p.m. on May 29, Dionte' Johnson was awakened by the phone call no business owner wants to get. It was his security company, informing him that someone had broken into his store. With protests just a few blocks from Sole Classics, his Columbus, Ohio sneaker shop, Johnson, formerly a pro football player, had been expecting the worst. And it had happened. A large glass window had been smashed, the merchandise looted.
Somehow, Johnson was able to put aside his anger to send a positive message to his community. After boarding up the store, he spray-painted a note on the plywood. "This is on us," he wrote. "For generations, we have called the youth stupid, taken funding from their programs, kicked them out of places, and ignored them. What would you expect? Don't lock your doors tighter, open your hearts wider. Spread love. SC."
Below, Johnson shares a story of entrepreneurship, empathy, and community. --As told to Kimberly Weisul
Growing up, my only job was working at a mom-and-pop store on the Ohio State campus. I started working there in high school. I played football at Ohio State. My dream was to play in the NFL and have an illustrious career and come back and own my own stores.
The opportunity to buy Sole Classics came about in 2010. [Johnson's pro football career was ended prematurely by an ankle injury.] I was 23, not knowing anything about life. I jumped at it. For the first several months, I was the only person working there. I probably had two employees for three years. Now I have 12, and we have two locations.
On Wednesday, we got word that people were beginning to organize. On Thursday, there were protests downtown. We're right on the lip of downtown. My cousin and I sat in the store all night and just watched things. We waited from 10 p.m. until 5:30 a.m. That night, things were relatively calm in our area. I believe a store down the street got broken into. That should have been our first warning that a lot of people were disguising themselves as protesters and taking advantage.
We went home and slept, and opened the business in the morning. After I left work that day, the plan was to go home, take a nap, come back at 10 p.m. and wait in the store all night.
That poor timing is when it went wrong.
I was asleep when my phone started vibrating. It was an 800 number, and usually if it's that kind of number, it's coming from ADT. My heart sank. I was halfway out the door as I was answering the phone. We got broken into at about 9:45 p.m. We had planned on being there around 10.
In a video a neighbor took from across the street, the first rock that broke the window was thrown by a White kid. Then 20 kids hopped out of a truck and ran into the store.
When I got there -- it's a blur. I parked in the middle of the street. The first thing I see is the window that's been smashed, and a lot of people standing around. There was an undercover cop there. He asked me questions, and I don't even know what he asked. I just grabbed a broom and started sweeping. That was when it became the most humbling. I began to see more and more people grabbing glass, picking things up. A couple of people brought brooms and stuff from their own home. Everybody was awake. Everybody pretty much knows us. People came out in droves.
All of that muted the anger in that moment. All I wanted to do was be alone in my store and put it back together. But I realized the community is bigger than myself. That immediately took away all that anger, and it was an abundance of love.
On Friday, we stayed in the store all night cleaning up. I thought, while people are here, while family are here, let's get this place back in order to show strength. We had every intention of opening up Saturday. By the time I got to the store Saturday morning, about 50 percent of the neighborhood was boarded up. We had messages from the police department saying it could get worse. So let's protect what's left.
I knew once we decided to board it up that I would send a message. I didn't know it would mean what it has. I didn't want people to forget about a certain demographic that I feel I represent. I looked like those kids.
I recognize that this was wrong. If it were my kids or my players or my friends that did this, I'd be the first one to jump off the porch at them. But at 17 years old, you make a lot of goofy mistakes. I coach football in the inner city. We try to coach against those mistakes. Sometimes you don't get a second chance. Because I can approach it from that level of empathy, I wanted to write a message to adults who somehow forget what it's like to be a younger person.
Boarding up the store was the only thing that brought some calm. It had been three days straight of long, long hours. By Sunday, I was able to be with my family and take a deep breath.
The response to that message has been so much better than I could have even imagined. There's been such an outpouring of people re-posting it. I had no idea. Sole Classics has received thousands of messages. I may never get to them all. I'm glad for it, but I had no idea that would be the response. I was doing it for the neighborhood. I kind of think we took the first stance in the neighborhood. In a lot of ways, the community was in pain. I think it softened a lot of people's hearts.
I've been trying to say: Do not take the looting personally. Let's say we see reform in the police department. Let's say we see some changes from the legislature, to where we see more fair practices or more open documents. If we see any kind of changes, that isn't for nothing. It sucks that it comes at the expense of our business, but that's an equation I'm comfortable sleeping with at night. And I think a lot of people would be if they think about it.
I have four kids at the house, and a wife. They keep bringing smiles to my face. All the kids are five or under. They're still going to embrace you with love. I was dead tired, and they're still going to want you to play with them. That helps, because I know there is more to lose and I know there is more to life. If I can leave the world a little better for them, I've fulfilled my purpose as a dad.
- Joah Spearman, founder of Austin-based travel guide Localeur, on the role of virtue signaling.
- Kim Prince, owner of Hotville Chicken, a restaurant in South Central L.A., on why, despite widespread protests, she chose to not board up but to stay open.
- Zawadi Bryant, founder of NightLight Pediatric, a group of urgent care clinics in the Houston metro area, on what keeps her awake at night.