The final Friday night in May was something of a metamorphosis for downtown Cincinnati. Stuffy 80-degree temperatures had eased into cool, comfortable springtime breezes. Bars and restaurants were getting back into a groove after months of COVID-19–related shutdowns. The city was slowly but surely coming back to life like a grizzly emerging from hibernation…
And then the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer rocked the country to its core.
In response, protesters took to Cincinnati streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, peacefully calling for justice, reform, and an end to racially motivated police brutality and systemic racism altogether. However, a few individuals had a more violent approach, mimicking the property destruction and looting that had taken place in Minnesota throughout the week. Small businesses on Vine Street, such as brick-and-mortar gift shop MiCA 12/v, were hit the hardest. “We lost every window but one, so six out of seven windows, and we had a little looting as well,” says co-owner Carolyn Deininger. “It was a bad night for a lot of people. We were sick and sad—sad for the neighborhood, sad for the city, and just very sad for OTR.”
A few blocks away, at the corner of Elm and West Ninth streets, BlaCk Coffee Lounge took similar damage—rocks had been thrown through the storefront windows. Owner Means Cameron says, “I had received a text message from my landlord and a picture. I rushed down to the shop and once I got here, seeing it in person, it was worse than the photo because of what these places represent to the community. It didn’t feel right that someone would have done that to our business.”
MiCA 12/v and BlaCk Coffee may not occupy the same street, but their owners’ initial gut reactions were the same: pure shock. “It was frustrating since we’d been closed two months already, so looking at a busted window after our first week open was tough because a lot of businesses are still struggling because of COVID,” Cameron says. “The revenue hasn’t been coming in so it’s just one more thing on the list.”
By Saturday morning, BlaCk Coffee was slated to close for the day. Cameron had felt an overwhelming sense of negativity about what had happened overnight. However, he was consoled by a loyal customer base, who showed up to the store despite catching wind of the closure, hoping Cameron could change his mind. With the added encouragement, he decided he would keep the store open. “It just kind of took the negativity out of the entire situation,” he says.
Meanwhile, Deininger was busy speaking to reporters about the damage at MiCa 12/v, where she experienced her own important revelation: “Our business is our livelihood, but we have our lives,” she says. “It’s stuff and it can be replaced, and we’re going to be OK. We realized that we don’t want what happened to us to distract from the bigger issue of justice for George Floyd, and we feel very strongly about the cause, and we side very much with the protesters.”
Over the course of the next few days, the downtown community rallied together to clean up broken glass and board up windows. The businesses took to social media to emphasize their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, reassuring patrons that, while they do not condone violence and looting, the property damage had not dampened their passion for the issues at large. For Cameron, making peace with what happened was natural, a reality that he says comes with being a black business owner. “You’re constantly juggling these two sides,” he says, “one that’s to build up and the other that’s fighting for your rights. People who are going out and protesting, it’s a beautiful thing.”
On Vine Street, Deininger showed her support for the movement by using her boarded-up windows as a canvas to spread a message of hope and perseverance. She called upon her friends—a collective of artists that included teacher John Lanzador—to create colorful illustrations of doves and butterflies, accompanied by the Black Lives Matter hashtag. “We just wanted to shift the focus,” Deininger says. “We wanted to show how we felt and make a statement that we are with the peaceful protesters, and I think art is the perfect medium for getting that message out there in a gentle way.”
Neighboring business owners are also participating in the trend of using their storefronts to spread messages of support, including Anna Steffen at The Native One, a popular women’s clothing boutique with a storefront on Vine Street and another in Covington. Her store didn’t sustain any damage during the rioting, but she boarded up her windows as a precaution after seeing what happened to places like MiCA 12/v and her shop’s next door neighbor Pitaya. “We wanted to use the boards as our message to say that, Yes, we are with you and we think this change needs to happen,” Steffen says.
The plywood covering The Native One’s windows reads: What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.