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Amid Pandemic, Protest Related Looting Hits Chicago Residents Hard


Some of the early protests over George Floyd's death in police custody sparked looting and vandalism in low-income areas. Residents who live in these neighborhoods are now reeling from the effects of the pandemic and from damage to businesses they depend on. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Chip Mitchell reports.

CHIP MITCHELL, BYLINE: On Chicago's West Side, Decoby Smith wanted to stop at a dollar store on the walk home from his shift at a jerk chicken joint, but he can't. The windows are bashed in, and the front doors are swinging freely as water flows out from somewhere inside. It's turned the parking lot into a fetid pond.

DECOBY SMITH: This Family Dollar meant a lot to us.

MITCHELL: Smith is 30. He lives nearby with his partner and their seven children, and this store is where they bought most of their essentials.

SMITH: Bread, milk, cereal, hot dogs, toothpaste. We don't have stores open in the neighborhood that sell them type of products no more.

MITCHELL: Decoby Smith doesn't have a car. He's worried about where he'll get his food to feed his family.

SMITH: My greatest fear right now is just the kids going hungry - like, the kids - like, we have to think about the hunger.

MITCHELL: As looting subsides in most U.S. cities, teams of young people are out with brooms. Nonprofit groups are setting up small business relief funds. And officials say they're pushing insurers to cut checks and urging big retail chains to quickly reopen.

But in wide swaths of Chicago's South and West sides, these efforts likely won't be enough. Some supermarkets, pharmacies and bank branches remain closed with no signs of repairs or reconstruction. The biggest, Walmart, had several stores looted. And it's making no promises about reopening. Veteran Chicago area developer James Matanky owns and manages shopping centers in low-income neighborhoods.

JAMES MATANKY: It is so difficult to get a good retailer to go into an underserved market, where it is more difficult for them to believe that they will make money. If they have to deal with extra security issues, if they have to deal with theft, if they have to deal with rebuilding their stores, they might think twice and not come back.

MITCHELL: Then there are small businesses. Cal State Long Beach business professor Laura Gonzalez says the pandemic has already brought many of them to the breaking point.

LAURA GONZALEZ: If they are being looted now, they just do not have the cash to rebuild. And they will not be able to get loans.

MITCHELL: No loans for rebuilding, she says, because the banks won't take the risk. Stacey Sutton teaches urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She predicts low-income areas won't get much public help, either.

STACEY SUTTON: How we use tax dollars and where they get allocated tends to be high-wealth areas. When we have an uprising, historically, that's what we've seen. And the reticence from many of our elected officials to redevelop becomes punitive. Well, you destroyed your neighborhood. Therefore, we're not going to reinvest.

MITCHELL: And then there's still another challenge in cities like Chicago - scarcity of food, medicines and household products could ratchet up neighborhood tensions as we head into a hot summer. Jesse Duncan heads a violence prevention program on the West Side.

JESSE DUNCAN: There are some things someone may have that others don't. And when you see someone that has it, you go get it. I feel like there will be a little bit more of that - a lot more, rather.

MITCHELL: Last Sunday, Chicago's worst day of looting, the city had 15 homicide deaths - the most in at least 36 years, according to WBEZ's analysis. Gun violence continued at elevated levels all week. It could make the poorest neighborhoods even less attractive to retailers and lenders.

DUNCAN: The food desert just got more deserted.

MITCHELL: A block from the destroyed dollar store, Marshall Hatch is senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. He says he's turning the church into a free food distributor, but he says much more will be needed in neighborhoods like his because there's no real safety net.

MARSHALL HATCH: Race has skewed that in America. America does not necessarily see African Americans as really part of the family and worthy of having a safety net.

MITCHELL: Pastor Hatch fears the unrest that's shaken the country after George Floyd's death will continue. For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. TOAST'S "EPICYCLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Based at WBEZ’s studio on Chicago’s West Side, Chip focuses on policing, gun violence and underground business. His investigative and narrative work has earned dozens of local and national honors. In 2017, 2015 and 2013, the Chicago Headline Club (the nation’s largest Society of Professional Journalists chapter) gave him its annual award for “best reporter” in broadcast radio.