By Sara Frazier, AVL Watchdog
One by one, they arrived at their downtown businesses this week to find shattered storefronts and graffiti-stained walls.
The damage could not have come at a worse time, following a two-month closure from a pandemic and a sluggish reopening.
But these Asheville business owners chose not to cast blame or demand justice from the vandals. They joined the cause.
Patton Avenue Pet Company owner Jenna Wilson, Hazel Twenty boutique owner Lexi DiYeso and others drafted a letter that they posted Thursday night in the Asheville Black Lives Matter Community Facebook group. It began with 20 signatures and by Saturday, 49 downtown merchants had signed their names. (Note: the owners of the Sly Grog Lounge, a downtown Asheville bar, responded with their own letter of support for protesters, saying they thought the initial letter didn’t go far enough.
“Several of our storefronts were vandalized, with the potential for more damage in the days to come. We’ve boarded up our windows and are already seeing a decline in business coming to our Downtown locations,” the letter reads. “And yet, we still stand with the protesters.
“We’d finally opened back up and were trying to get back on our feet when these protests began. And we still stand with the protesters.”
The merchants are siding with the thousands that have turned out daily in downtown Asheville to protest police brutality after last month’s killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident, by white police officers.
For these owners, the issue is bigger than their storefronts.
“It’s very clear to us that this happened for a reason,” DiYeso said. “Let’s deal with that reason instead of trying to silence it.”
The business owners were motivated in part by comments made earlier in the week by John McKibbon, local hotelier and owner of Kimpton Hotel Arras, who criticized city leaders for not doing more to prevent the vandalism.
Wilson said McKibbon did not represent the views of many business owners.
“Rather than have a giant hotelier speak for all of us, we wanted to make sure that our individual voices were collectively joined to make a statement that we all believed in,” she said.
The owners said they stand behind the right to protest police brutality, even if it means their businesses will suffer.
“It is a right that we, and most of the fellow local business owners we know, believe strongly in. So strongly that we would rather lose money than see protesters’ voices silenced and bodies wounded,” the letter reads. “For too long, money and property have been more important to this country than Black Lives, and it’s well past time for that to change.”
The business owners condemned the violence that Asheville Police used against protesters, including tear gas and the destruction of a medic station, an incident that drew national attention. Asheville Police Chief David Zack initially defended the dismantling of the medical aid station staffed by volunteer nurses and doctors but later issued an apology.
“While we are opposed to the senseless destruction of private property, particularly that belonging to small businesses, this cannot be used to justify the brutality and violence we are seeing from the Asheville Police Department towards protesters, the vast majority of whom are peaceful,” the letter reads.
“When the choices are made to destroy water and medical supplies, to indiscriminately shoot protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas, to set curfews to allow for mass arrests — do not use our businesses as an excuse.”
The Asheville Police spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Strangers help clean up
The business owners see hope and strength in Asheville residents looking out for each other.
When DiYeso arrived at her boutique on Patton Avenue after the vandalism occurred, strangers were already knocking on her door and asking to help clean up the glass. One of those strangers was an emergency room nurse who had just returned from an overnight shift. DiYeso said the nurse arrived at the store with tears in her eyes and asked to be put to work.
“Tuesday was the most profound day I think I’ve ever had,” DiYeso said. “We care deeply, and we are showing up.”
Wilson said there was some vandalism to Patton Avenue Pet Company, but downtown workers, including unemployed bartenders, had cleaned her storefront before she had even arrived the next morning.
“Then I walked down the street and helped scrub other businesses, and I will note, with no help from the city,” she said. “We did it as businesses with each other, and the community.”
Wilson is heartened by the support the letter has received from so many merchants.
“Each of us realize that our voice as an individual citizen is quiet, our voice as a business owner is louder, and our voice of collective business owners is very loud,” she said.
And their boarded-up storefronts are making a statement. Local artists have painted the plywood with murals supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. One on the Patton Avenue Pet Company lists black people killed by police. Another reads: “Say Their Names.”
Wilson said store owners have discussed selling the murals once they’re removed and donating the proceeds to “black Asheville causes.” Other downtown business owners would like to see them displayed in an exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum.
Diversity lacking in business
Wilson hopes the protests will result in lasting change and bring more diversity to Asheville commerce. This week, AVL Today compiled a list of black-owned businesses to support in Asheville.
“We don’t see a lot of black business owners,” Wilson said. “The fact that there has to be a list is just crazy when there’s a sizable population of African-American people in Asheville.”
Franzi Charen, the owner of Hip Replacements and director of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, said Asheville, like many other cities, needs more black-owned businesses.
“The privilege of ownership has been much more easily accessed in the United States by white people, and traditionally by white males specifically,” she said.
Charen said Mountain BizWorks and the A-B Tech Small Business Center could provide the skills and resources employees need to become business owners.
“That is one way to tear down these doors and these barriers to ownership,” she said. Charen hopes the momentum from the protests leads to a more inclusive Asheville.
“It makes me feel confident that we can create a better Asheville and Buncombe County on the other side of this,” she said. “I hope a lot of these lessons get embedded into our soul, the soul of Asheville, the soul of who we are in Western North Carolina, and that we begin to really work on true systemic change.”
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sara Frazier is a recent graduate of Boston University’s journalism program and a freelance journalist. Contact us at [email protected]