Ashley Daily Stegall hated how the plywood looked covering the smashed windows at her parents’ jewelry store in Peoria, Ill. So she asked a local artist to paint flowers on the boards. “The goal is to make people happy,” said Ms. Stegall.
For Janet Davis, the reality of what happened in Peoria cannot be easily painted over. She erected plywood to protect her clothing store from looting that followed peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd. A month later, Ms. Davis still hasn’t fully reopened because she worries more violence is ahead.
Big retailers are struggling, too. The Dollar General, near a large subsidized housing development, dumped all of its food last week because the vandalized store is likely to stay closed six more weeks for repairs. “They are throwing out food in a food desert,” said Denise Moore, a City Council member.
A city of about 111,000 in the central part of the state, Peoria has historically been a bellwether for the Midwest and, at times, the nation. It is a place where marketers tested products, politicians honed their slogans and rock stars kicked off tours. “Will it play in Peoria?” the saying went.
But it has been many years since companies like Pampers and Folgers coffee debuted products in Peoria before rolling them out nationally.
Some residents and local leaders say Peoria is now emblematic for a different reason. It is a city where many Black residents, who make up about 27 percent of the population, and white residents experience starkly different economic realities, leading to years of frustration and despair.
On May 30, there were peaceful protests throughout the city. But the next night, Peoria experienced a burst of looting, vandalism and violence when, the police and residents say, a group of young people drove through the city, ransacking beauty stores, breaking into a guns and ammunition store, and even cutting the locks at the city zoo to let the donkeys out.
One month later, business owners are still struggling to make repairs and reopen, while also debating the roots of the looting and how to respond. Many residents say the vandalism was a random spasm of rage and opportunism. But others say some of the looting was deliberate, targeting large chains and certain other retailers while sparing many Black-owned businesses.
Chama St. Louis, a former president of Peoria’s Black Chamber of Commerce who is running for mayor, said she believed at least some of the looting was meant to send a message, and she bailed out four people who were arrested in connection with the unrest. But in doing so, Ms. St. Louis, 35, found herself at odds with both white and Black leaders in Peoria, who denounced the vandalism and theft as simply crimes, not political acts.
Ms. St. Louis said the people she had bailed out targeted “corporate businesses and businesses that leech off the community.”
“But I understand why this was being done,” she said. “It should have been part of a bigger conversation about how communities of color have been treated in Peoria. Instead they are focused on denouncing the behavior, not on why this happened.”
Ms. Moore, who is the first Black woman elected to the City Council, said there was a more troubling reason Black businesses seemed spared from the looting.
“There just aren’t enough Black-owned businesses in Peoria,” she said. “That is the bigger issue.”
Peoria’s South Side has one of the poorest ZIP codes in Illinois, and one publication has, for several years, named the city among the worst places to live if you are Black. The median household income for Black residents of Peoria is $41,200, compared with $60,300 for white residents, according to census data. White residents are twice as likely to hold a college degree as Black residents are.
And yet Peoria, which boasts a revived riverfront, a minor-league baseball stadium and a new drive-in movie theater, was also cited by Business Insider as one of the best cities to live in after the pandemic. Caterpillar, the construction equipment company, still has a large presence in the city.
“At the same time that it is being lauded as an all-American city it is being named, again and again, as one of the worst places to be Black,” said Terrion Williamson, a professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, who grew up on the South Side. “Perhaps what it is to be ‘quintessentially American’ is to be necessarily hostile to Black life.”
Before the looting occurred, it seemed to be well telegraphed and widely expected among many in Peoria. In court documents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said some of the looters had used Facebook to rally and coordinate people to converge on certain retailers and a mall.
In all, 27 businesses were burglarized, 14 other properties were damaged, and there were several reports of arson, according to the F.B.I.
One of those businesses was Kelly Beauty Supply, which boasts “the largest selection of wigs in Peoria.”
Kelly Park, 44, opened the shop three years ago, thinking a smaller city like Peoria would be less competitive than Chicago, where she and her husband had settled after immigrating from South Korea in their 20s.
In a shopping plaza, next to a Walmart, Kelly Beauty Supply focuses on items for Black women, offering hair extensions and nail products. The store had been closed since late March because of the pandemic and had no income for about two months.
The store was set to open on June 1, but the night before, one of Ms. Park’s former employees texted her: There was talk in local Facebook circles, the person said, that looters were going to hit the beauty shop.
Early that morning, Ms. Park got a call from her alarm company that the store had been vandalized. When her husband arrived at the store, the police had already left. Inside, the display counters had been wrecked and some of the most expensive hair extensions had been stolen, Ms. Park said. The Walmart had also been vandalized.
The worst part was watching the security camera footage from that night. Ms. Park said she recognized some of the people who had broken into the store, because they were among her customers.
“There were some familiar faces,” she said. “It is too much stress thinking about it. I just try to focus on the kind people.”
Ms. Park said she planned to donate more money for college scholarships for local students. But in two years, when their lease is up, she said, they will most likely move their business out of Peoria.
“I feel very tired,” said Ms. Park, who has been battling cancer during the pandemic.
Ms. Davis, who runs the clothing store, also received a tip from friends monitoring Facebook that her business, Janet’s Just for You, was a target. The daughter of a Peoria police detective, and a leader in the Black community, Ms. Davis, 63, went on a local radio station to plead for the looting to stop.
“They say they are about Black Lives Matter, but if you break into my business, you are taking a Black life,” said Ms. Davis, who opened her shop 28 years ago.
Although her store was spared, she blames the mayhem on young people outside Peoria, who “hyped up” local residents.
Ms. Davis has no plans to reopen to the general public soon. Taking down the plywood costs money, and she’s not sure how good business would be.
“I am selling designer clothing,” she said. “I want people to feel good, not wondering whether they should run or duck when they are in my store.”
Travis Mohlenbrink reopened four of his seven restaurants in June for outdoor and partial indoor dining. None of them were damaged by the looting. Late last month, though, the windows in five of his catering vans were smashed, the first time his business had ever been vandalized.
“I hope there are enough people who have been made aware of the issues and the dialogue can continue,” Mr. Mohlenbrink said. “I am an optimist in general. But the realist side of me is scared about our future. A lot of things have to change.”
Ms. Stegall is feeling more hopeful. Her family’s store, Bremer Jewelry, was hit twice by looters. First, they smashed the front windows but couldn’t get past a metal security gate. On the next try, people attempted to pry the back door open with a crowbar.
“They did this because there was jewelry in the store and they wanted it,” she said. “It was not personal.”
The day after the looting, Ms. Stegall, 31, invited the police and City Council members to pray for harmony in the store’s parking lot. She said the group had included Black and white residents reading from the Bible.
Ms. Stegall, who runs the marketing side of the business, asked local artists to come up with an idea for a mural to cover the plywood. One artist wanted to convey a political message, but Ms. Stegall rejected that idea.
“This is about turning the other cheek and reminding people that not everything is horrible,” she said.
“We have customers from every walk of life and from every race and income level who come here to celebrate a wedding or an engagement or a special occasion,” Ms. Stegall added. “And we are a family of 30 employees, all with different opinions. We don’t feel the need to express one opinion publicly.”
Young’s Popcorn Heaven, a Black-owned business, was also spared damage. But JoAnn Young, 66, who opened the shop with her husband, Greg, after she retired as a card dealer at a local casino, said she worried that big chains that were damaged, like Walmart, would raise their prices to pay for the repairs.
“They will pass those costs along to consumers, and prices are already going higher because of the coronavirus,” she said.
Last week, the Dollar General store was dumping even packaged food in trash bins because of liability and health concerns in case any of it had been damaged when vandals broke in, Ms. Moore said. She worries that nearby residents now have to travel more than a mile for affordable food.
“Yes, you have a right to be angry,” she said. “But you are hurting the people who can least afford it.”
A Dollar General spokeswoman said the company anticipated that the store would reopen within the next four to six weeks.
Ms. St. Louis, the mayoral candidate, said looting at places like Walmart and Dollar General may have been the only way to get the city’s attention, after years of warning about widening inequality and racism.
“You can’t just talk about the how and what,” she said. “You have to dig into why this behavior happened.”