Over the past two and a half months, as much of our country has lived in quarantine, we've witnessed the violent loss of black lives with disturbing frequency. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have died at the hands of racists and law enforcement. Complex Networks recognizes the power of its platforms and is committed to amplifying their stories and the voices of our communities to work for justice.
In nearly every city, amid all of the chaos, the protesting, the burning of buildings, rioting and looting, alongside all of the shouting, yelling, crying, chanting and concern, is one common question: How did we get here? Then, in my world of retail, it is usually followed by a few more: Why are so many cities across the nation involving themselves in an issue that originated somewhere else? Why are sneaker stores and apparel stores, both boutiques and chains, being looted for their goods? What is going wrong with the community? What's wrong with streetwear?
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a black man, was detained for allegedly passing along fraudulent currency. Instead of receiving a punishment to fit the crime, or even the opportunity to plead his case in a courtroom, he was choked to death by a member of the Minneapolis Police Department as he pled for his life. On May 26, the world would begin to witness a shift that could possibly change things forever. There was no way to foresee that this set of protests would not quickly become exhausted and end just like any other. This time, people across the nation would unify under one cause, and it is incredible.
My name is Dionte' Johnson. I am a black man and the owner of sneaker boutique Sole Classics in Columbus, Ohio. We have been in business for 14 years, 11 of which have been under my leadership. In my 11 years as owner, I have sat in a place of privilege. I sell a product that is a luxury, yet people flock to purchase as if it is a necessity.
On Friday, May 29, during the protests, my store was broken into and looted by people looking for personal gain disguised as members of a group with a unified message of peace, justice, and equality. On Thursday night, we received word that protesters would be in the area, so me and a cousin guarded our belongings from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m., when we would finally go on to retire for the night. The next day, we planned on getting back to the shop around 10 p.m., so I decided to take an hour-long nap to recharge my batteries and prepare for another long third shift. Fifteen minutes before my alarm was set to ring, my phone began to vibrate from an 800 number. My heart immediately sank. As I answered, I quickly ran to grab my keys, and my worst assumptions were realized as the operator asked me if I wanted the police to be sent. I responded, "Yes," hung up, and raced to the store.
Upon arriving at the shop, of course too late, the sense of tension would escape my body and would immediately become replaced with frustration, sadness, pain. Why? Why did "y'all" attack my shop? Me, the same guy who coaches in the city, runs neighborhood cleanups, school supply giveaways and workshops, the same guy who you shop with and always greets you with a smile and conversation? I walked to the bathroom, not speaking to anyone, and grabbed a broom. Still not speaking, I began to work, sweeping, grabbing things, throwing glass in the trash can. After a few minutes of self-pity, my eyes began to slowly unblur, and I started to notice more and more people around me picking up the pieces and returning them to where they seemed to belong. I was humbled, and in that moment I was able to remove myself from the equation. This was not about me.
The fact of the matter is that I was not a target. This was not a personal attack. A friend of mine experienced a looting break-in days earlier, then several other sneaker shops, some consignment shops, clothing retailers, even major chains were looted countrywide. The only common thread to bond us together is that all of us sell coveted, non-essential luxury goods. This was not an attack on streetwear by any means—in fact, I'd have to be arrogant to believe that streetwear has anything to do with it at all. This is a deeper-rooted issue. There are social and economic barriers that have plagued minority communities ever since a minority community has even been a thing.
When I sat there and watched the people out and about that day, I saw a ton of youth, the same youth that we ignore, we challenge, we kick out of our favorite places, we kick out of our least favorite places—the same youth that we have held on house-confinement for the past three months due to a global pandemic. Youth in the streets blaring music from their speakers, dancing, and looking for a way to release all of the tension that they may have gained from their environment. I put myself in their shoes. If I were 17, I may have been there, too. The people who ran through my shop were not the internet kids who purchase $110 socks and sit on their laptops to enter 200 raffles, or wait in line for hours just hoping to get one shoe that they want. These were opportunists. So now that we have removed them from the protester pool and the streetwear pot, we can identify what is going on from an honest perspective.
Now, before you fire off on me in the comments, I am in no way condoning theft of any sort. I do not agree with the damaging of property, and if they were my kids, or the players that I coach, I would have jumped into their chest myself. However, they are not. I am a person who believes in action more than conversation, and, for once in my life, I believe that there is a greater purpose being unlocked in our nation. The silver lining is that now everyone has been forced to slow down and pay attention. We literally have no choice, and we definitely have nothing better to do. We can't even distract ourselves from it through sports. If I have to lose a few shoes in the process in order to get the attention of those in power who can invoke change, I can live with that. I can die with that on my conscience.
For the first time in many of our lifetimes, we have a chance to unite and contribute to something that is far bigger than us in order to leave this place in far better shape than we received it. This is not an attack on any company. This is not an attack on you. This is an attack on a system that has been designed to ignore anything that does not directly involve it. Whether you admit it or not, even as you read this, most of us think, "Dang, that's messed up!" When we see something that is, in fact, "messed up," then we go about our routine as if there is nothing that we can do about it. Well, we cannot ignore this one. It is right in the heart of nearly every major city in the United States of America. The real question becomes, "Are you listening?"
In the wake of what happened in my shop, I wrote a message on my now-boarded-up storefront that reads: "This is on us! For generations we have called the youth stupid, stripped 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.” What was in my heart when I wrote it was that if this is my moment to turn a tragedy into a lasting imprint, then I promise not to use my moment to fill the world with more negativity or animosity. I will not feed the beast that engulfs our childhood and forces us to grow up. I will not be manipulated by the media to turn into a victim and cry, "Woe is me," but instead I will strike a match in solidarity with those who want change so much that they are willing to risk their freedom for it. A flame for the voiceless, the forgotten, and ignored, and a fire large enough for those of us who have been sitting on the sideline to see, so that we get out of our seats and demand the same justice and freedoms that we are all promised as citizens of these United States of America. I find my optimistic peace by believing we will see change so dynamic that my children may one day be able to enjoy the same luxuries as all of their classmates, no matter their race. Change in the form of police reform as well as legislature and public policy. Am I foolish? Maybe. But if I am, I know which side of history I'd rather proudly stand on. What will you do to stand up?
P.S. Do not forget that there is a global pandemic running alongside this national cry for justice. Please be safe, no matter what position you take. Please find a local small business to support and find ways to help. We need each other so much more now than we ever have before.