The nearly nine minute murder of George Floyd, pinned at the neck by the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, has ignited a reckoning far beyond just another instance of police violence against Black Americans and people of color. The glaring lack of access to healthcare laid bare by Covid-19, inadequate affordable housing, and underfunded schools are just the beginning of a long list of inequities that are forcing local and national discussions of systemic racism and an unprecedented demand, finally, for tangible action.
Despite the potential harm due to the pandemic, protests that are overwhelmingly peaceful and creative persist across Oakland. From a car caravan to a student-led protests from Oakland Tech to City Hall, angry, diverse voices are being raised loudly and don’t seem to be going away.
Sadly and ironically, many small, locally-owned shops in neglected communities are among the approximately 200 businesses, according to Interim OPD Police Chief Susan Manheimer, which bore the brunt of the vandalism in the early days of the protests. From downtown Oakland to Chinatown, from the Fruitvale district and beyond, we spoke with several BIPOC business owners, all sympathetic to the cause but all still picking up the pieces from both random and suspiciously planned acts.
The scattering of small business owners across Oakland who were surveyed have picked up the pieces from the weekend of vandalism and reopened. They all see the need for changing the police tactics that resulted in the death of George Floyd, and a seemingly relentless list of victims. They are guardedly optimistic about both prospects.
Their stories reflect unexpected loss, but even more, the resilience deeply rooted in Oakland.
Queen Hippie Gypsy, downtown Oakland
“I am also a protester, I just want to make that clear,” said Lilliana “Lilly” Ayers, an Oakland native and Co-Owner of Queen Hippie Gypsy with her husband Kyrah Ayers. Queen Hippie Gypsy, which recently celebrated its two year anniversary, is a wellness center, retail space, and event space consisting of yoga workshops, oracle readings, spiritual baths, holistic health, metaphysical, support services, incense, essential oils, healing crystals, herbs, and more. Ayers said she supports the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I am very passionate about seeing social justice change and creating the change that I seek,” Ayers said. “My point is that I am a peaceful protester. The peaceful protesters, they show up everyday and I am with them. Giving them free crystals, giving them free sage, and I support the movement.”
As a thriving botanica, mom and pop, brick and mortar storefront business in downtown Oakland, Ayers was just in the process of converting her store to online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in May. During the first weekend of protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd, Queen Hippie Gypsy’s windows were broken.
Ayers supports the protests. “We do deserve our right to protest,” Ayers said. “We deserve that, it is our right. And that’s what creates change.”
She and the Oakland community stayed up all night during the second night of protests and played music, passed out free crystals, had a bubble machine, burned sage, and prayed for her community. “I did what I knew how to do, said Ayers. “I am Queen Hippie Gypsy and that’s how I showed up.”
Ayers is adamant about supporting small and local businesses, not just theirs, but other ones in Oakland, too. She noted that other businesses on her block were also vandalized and in addition, broken into. “If all these small businesses are destroyed and looted, all you’re gonna have left is Target, Walmart, and Amazon, and then what?”
Ayers is well-known in the Black community in Oakland, and fans of Queen Hippie Gypsy include Oakland’s homegrown singer Kehlani, who visited the store last month.
Ayers said she will continue to stay in Oakland. Starting Saturday, July 11, the business is open to the public for online orders and walk-up customers. – Aqueila M. Lewis
Some 30 businesses were hit by waves of vandalism that rocked Chinatown during the last weekend in May, according to Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan. Now when you go, you can’t tell which stores have been hit because all the businesses, even ones that are open, have boarded up their store fronts as a precaution.
“We’ve been through every protest over the past 40 years and it’s been pretty much okay,” said Chan. “This time it was totally shocking. People couldn’t believe what they saw.”
He said that Chinatown residents support the protests that erupted nationally following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “That should be the focus. Unfortunately, now we have to deal with the looting.”
In previous protests, vandals targeted the major banks in Chinatown. This time on Friday night, they did not discriminate and seemed prepared to hit every type of business. “At jewelry stores, they pried open iron gates, smashed windows, and took everything including safes. One pharmacy was struck twice,” Chan said.
Previously, two-thirds of Chinatown businesses closed with mid-March’s shelter-in-place orders, according to Chan. By late May, in connection with the celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, half of all businesses had reopened. Ironically, more were set to reopen on Monday, June 1 when the Chamber planned to distribute 6,000 masks to vulnerable front line workers like grocery clerks, unemployed hotel workers, and especially seniors. Instead, Chinatown shopkeepers and residents sifted through the damage of the previous weekend during the early morning hours, sweeping up broken glass and cleaning graffiti.
Chan emphasized the plight of elderly people who, according to his estimate, comprise about 75% of Chinatown’s residents. Many seniors had already experienced verbal and physical abuse when COVID-19 first emerged. “When the president talked about ‘the Chinese virus,’ there was another wave of attacks,” he said. Now, with virtually every pharmacy in Chinatown and downtown closed, “they are not able to get prescriptions which some of them rely upon to stay alive.” Normally, as with previous protests, children and grandchildren would come and pick them up. “Now they are stuck here and really suffering emotionally, psychologically, and physically.’
New Oakland Pharmacy closed June 1 to take inventory of the losses resulting from a weekend of vandalism. It was the first Monday the drug store did not open in Raymond Cheung’s nearly 25 years as its pharmacist and manager.
“With all the big protests over many years, we’ve been mostly spared even though we’re smack in the middle of Broadway and the police station,” Cheung said. His clients are mainly low-income seniors who live in the neighborhood. Many receive medical care and prescriptions from nearby Asian Health Services, where 98% of patients earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level. New Oakland Pharmacy is a “one stop shop” where customers can also pay their PG&E bills or mail letters at its satellite postal station.
“We have to stay open,” Cheung said. “We’re talking about seniors, 70 to 80 years old, whose lives depend on heart, blood pressure, diabetes, and psychiatric medications. They called to see if we’re okay and if they can come for their medications.”
Vandals, a small group of young adults as seen in security camera footage, struck late Friday night, smashing windows and going for the prescription drugs. A larger, more organized group hit the pharmacy late Sunday night, this time with hammers and crowbars.
“I absolutely believe it was planned,” Cheung said. “They were organized and just went in and had a field day.” With a lookout posted outside, they tore out the plywood that replaced Friday’s shattered windows. This time, they destroyed the cash machines, cutting the wires and taking the drawers.” Cheung called the second round of looting “the work of opportunists who took advantage of the protest as law enforcement was distracted.” This time, a prompt response prevented more severe property damage. Besides cleaning up on Monday, Cheung had to contact vendors and replace the cash machines to reopen by Tuesday.
Referring to the continuing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he described the local residents as being “afraid but not terrified. If you’re older, you stay home. The community understands the situation. We support the cause and understand to get your voice heard, you need to be loud and forceful. The bottom line is, we don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
On the other side of Chinatown, the Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory, the oldest in the Bay Area, has been making handmade cookies since 1957. “Things were going really well this year,” said manager Alex Issvoran. “Chinese New Year had just ended. It was the most successful one we ever had.”
But with the start of shelter-in-place in mid-March, orders dried up at the factory noted for its popular tours. Almost immediately, one of its two large wholesale customers suspended orders. The factory closed its busy storefront. Letting go two of its eight employees, all immigrant women, was particularly painful.
The fortune cookie factory began three generations ago, “as a business for immigrant women who would otherwise have a difficult time finding a job,” Issvoran said.
The smashing of the store front window around midnight on Friday, May 29 was much less painful. “In comparison with what needs to happen for police reform, a broken window is small beans,” he said. “We always see protests passing through 12th St. Nothing really happened, until now.”
Pointing to the outpouring of support on Sunday, June 7, when some 450 Oaklanders showed up to clean up Chinatown, Issvoran remains optimistic. “I always have hope when we’re talking about what we can do to build up the community,” he said. “People are itching to go out and patronize businesses. I think we’re going to come out of this stronger and more resilient.” – Bill Joyce
Los Mexicanos, Fruitvale district
Ever since Ramon Jimenez started selling vegetables at a make-shift food stand on the busy corner at High St. and International Blvd in 1972, Los Mexicanos has been open for business. That is, until Sunday, May 31. At midnight, under the cover of the massive and suspicious vandalism that swept across the East Bay during the last weekend of May, a group of masked looters set off the alarm when they broke through the iron gate at the entrance, smashed the windows, and immediately plundered the store.
“They went right to the office and broke down the steel door,” Ramon’s son and current manager, Temo Jimenez, said. “They destroyed the furniture and stole the computers. You don’t expect this in small, family business[es], especially right after the coronavirus hit a lot of our customers.”
A small, four aisle grocery store—Los Mexicanos still posts hand-written notices of available rooms and jobs in Spanish on its bulletin board—closed for one day. “We wished we could have closed longer,” Jimenez said. “But the first of the month is one of the busiest days of the month. The customers were begging for us to open up. It was already hard telling over 20 employees that we wouldn’t be open on June 1.”
The damage was as much emotional as it was economic. It’s a small family-run business, an anchor of the local community for nearly 50 years. The customers are mainly migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Many have lost jobs; many more are day laborers. Several families tend to share a single house.
“They’re doing their best to pay the rent,” said Jimenez. “Not everyone has the means to feed their family. Everyone pitches in. It’s a family here in the streets. We all come from a family-oriented background. Growing up in an immigrant family, I understand the community’s needs and it makes me work harder.”
Temo’s late father, Ramon, let customers run a tab and pay after they cashed their paychecks. Those values shaped his son’s view of the business. “I’ll give you an example from yesterday,” he said. “A Guatemalan woman couldn’t get her credit card to work. She was devastated because she wanted to feed her family. So I said, ‘just sign the $75 bill as an IOU and come back and pay it when you can.’”
Nearly a week after the looting and filing a police report online, Jimenez still hadn’t heard from OPD. When he flagged down a police car, the officer told him that OPD had received well over 500 calls and counting.
In the meantime, the lines at Los Mexicanos form well before the doors open at 9 am. Customers share stories about what’s happening in the neighborhood. Jobs are scarce but people are comfortable in this longtime community hub.
Temo Jimenez is optimistic. “It’s a positive voice when you hear the people protest,” he told me. “Racial discrimination in our community and in the whole country needs to stop. We need our voices in the streets. We also need a law against the people who come from other cities to disrupt and create chaos. There’s a real beauty coming out of this. You can feel the positive energy from everyone. It may take six months or a year, but it’s all making us stronger. We are very, very proud to serve here. But what I really want to do is put tomatoes on the shelves and make the payments. I keep it real.” – Bill Joyce
RBA Collective, Laurel district
Within 30 years, Randolph Belle has owned five commercial art businesses throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. The first art gallery, Oakland Art [dot] com, was located in the Oakland Uptown Arts District and opened in 1998. Over the years, he has sat on numerous advisory boards and commissions; his professional career expands as an artist, entrepreneur, arts administrator, and community development consultant.
He currently owns RBA Creative, a graphic design, communications, and public affairs firm in the Laurel district, which has been at the location for over three years. Belle has served as a leader in various arts organizations and venues in Oakland, including as board of director of membership for the Oakland Film Society and advisory board member of The Crucible. He previously was co-chair of the City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission and president of the board of directors for Pro Arts, among other roles in the community.
During the second week of ongoing protests, his business was broken into and vandalized. Belle lost thousands of dollars in damages to the company’s computers and various office equipment. (Oakland Voices has previously used this space to hold meetings and workshops). Across the street from RBA Creative, a bike shop and a few other businesses were also vandalized.
While forging long-standing relationships in the arts, business, government, and community, Belle understands the importance for protest.
“As a 52-year old Black man with an upbringing in a household that was certainly conscious, I understand the underlying rage and frustration that spawned the uprising, but also have to parse and reconcile the fact that with the resistance comes the opportunism created by despair,” Belle said. “This is what led to the looting of our place of business. While I understand it, there’s a reality that should set in that this is how I feed my family and keep a roof over my head, along with serving the community.”
Belle organized a merchant meeting with special guest District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao. “You’re required to file a police report for insurance purposes,” Belle said. “She was there to lend her support to the merchants and we appreciate that.”
Due to shelter-in-place, Belle was in the middle of temporarily transitioning his business digitally since his office was physically closed. Even throughout the many decades he’s been in business, he’s not going to move, and remains creative with the times. “You really can’t plan for something like this,” Belle said. “You can’t predictably move somewhere that is not going to have episodes of civil unrest. For the most part, we just do what we do and keep on moving. We’ll just pick up where we were in the midst of a pandemic.”
Belle said he can’t really prepare for a pandemic or break-ins, but doesn’t see RBA Creative leaving its location in the Laurel district.
“The demise of our presence as a resource would definitely be a great loss and certainly not serve the movement. Fortunately, we are continuing to persevere and will hopefully come back stronger.” – Aqueila M. Lewis
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Some owners have insurance which covers property damage; others do not. The staff at the city’s Economic & Workforce Development Department continues to make outreach calls to the nearly 200 vandalized businesses and shares their data with the Oakland Police Department. Financial assistance programs are being explored at City Hall but, with the city’s looming $122 million budget shortfall, details are sketchy. The City has compiled this list of resources.
Aqueila M. Lewis-Ross is a multi-talented, award-winning Bay Area Native well-versed in singing, poetry/spoken word, and journalism. Aqueila has studied and performed throughout the United States, Europe, Japan, and is a graduate of Napa Valley College and University of California, Berkeley. Her book of poetry, Stop Hurting and Dance, published by Pochino Press, is a collection of stories overcoming fear, oppression, gentrification, and police brutality; she honors what it means to live with resilience, love and prosperity. She holds the titles of Ms. Oakland Plus America 2014, SF Raw Performing Artist of the Year 2015, and was an Oakland Voices-KALW Community Journalist awardee in 2016 and Greater Bay Area Journalism Awardee in 2017.