It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since our city experienced a wave of orchestrated looting in the wake of protests over the Minneapolis Police killing of George Floyd. Much of Emeryville remains pockmarked with plywood covering broken windows scattered around all four shopping centers and small businesses along San Pablo Avenue.
Its been a time for Emeryville residents to do a bit of self-reflection, to assess why this happened to our city, listen to other perspectives and determine where we go from here.
But what happened in Emeryville was different than the civil unrest experienced in other parts of the area and country. By all accounts, this wasn’t a spontaneous act fueled by a mix of anger and opportunism, but more like a tactical operation conducted by criminal rings. “They have scouts. They have caravans of cars,” recently retired EPD Chief Jennifer Tejada told the International Business Times. “We had upwards of 1,000 people doing that.”
Still, some consider looting “an act of protest” and the expression of rage of a generation that has been historically repressed and subjected to institutional or “systemic” racism. Some have justified this looting as a form of reappropriation and deserved. This Daily Kos story attempted to distinguish the difference between protesters and the looting that occurred.
Twitter Reaction: A Reckoning for Our City?
Some of the loudest, angriest voices were not surprisingly on Twitter known for its professional trolls, divisive commentary and fostering political echo chambers.
Some of the most retweeted comments pointed out Emeryville’s 1924 Ohlone Shellmound destruction, our city’s affinity for “big box” retail and willful participation in capitalism as justification for this looting. That this was a form of “reckoning” for Emeryville’s past and current sins.
“Emeryville is a neoliberal hellscape of big box corporations that go there for the tax break” described Twitter user Allie L. who is a co-chair of the East Bay DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). Another verified user even asked the looters to “grab her some AirPods at Bay Street.”
One POC voice who identified herself as a resident of Emeryville, expressed fear during the looting and that this was not an act of protest but “people are literally just breaking into businesses.” The user was shouted down by other Twitter users and ended up deleting her tweet and clarifying her stance.
Small Business Reaction: Where was the Warning?
While most of the looting was centered around our city’s four shopping centers, small businesses, particularly around San Pablo Avenue, were not spared.
Some businesses expressed dismay of the city’s lack of warning provided. The E’ville Eye was alerted to online chatter about the threat the night prior and was provided a resident tip around 1 p.m. from a property management company. We quickly disseminated the threat through our combined social media channels of nearly 7,000 users. The City did not issue a formal alert until nearly two hours later.
“Thank you for being one of the first places to inform us of the “protest,” noted one proprietor that reached out to us. “[We] were able to get a game plan together in time to get to the shop about 8pm and we defended our shop all night until about 2 a.m. The entire [plaza] was looted and vandalized except our place because we showed a very strong ‘force’ if you will to the looters. Thank you for alerting us hours before the landlord did. You helped us save our business.”
Another business owner described being smoke-bombed out of her office forcing her to flee. “They sprayed the whole office with the sulfuric fire extinguisher repellant after they smoke bombed me out of my office.“
While some businesses were critical of EPD’s response to the situation, others applauded their “restraint” as the situation could have rapidly escalated. Despite at least two incidents involving gunfire, there was no loss of life reported during the chaotic evening. There were only six arrests made.
Local Politician Reaction: ‘A Distraction’
Members of our city council reacted in real-time via Twitter. Councilmember Bauters dismissed the looting of his city as a “distraction” and Councilmember Medina expressed empathy for those “protesting out of pain or anger.”
Black Lives Matter. #BLM
White Americans must demand police accountability.
Stay safe everyone. ✌🏼
— John J. Bauters 🏳️🌈 (@JohnBauters) May 31, 2020
If you are a member of our community tonight protesting out of pain or anger- I understand and empathize. I encourage you to stay safe. I encourage allies to allow black voices to lead tonight. I’m here to support you from my position of power any way I can.
— Ally Medina (@EvilleAlly) May 31, 2020
2020 Mayor Christian Patz mostly evaded condemning or distinguishing the looters from the protest activity when pressed in this interview by KTVU that evening. “This is a just a sign of the frustration that people are having and the challenges…” he said. In fact, Patz did not refer to the incident at “looting” in his letter to the community but instead that these businesses “experienced vandalism, break-ins and thefts.”
Some residents were critical of our local officials for not outright condemning the actions of the looters. “Even though it goes without saying, perhaps a slight comment that looting is wrong while also a distraction?” noted one commenter in reaction to Bauters’ tweet. “This is Twitter after all– it doesn’t hurt to communicate a bit more clearly, even if it is somewhat obvious.”
“I heard you defending the looters of the Emeryville mall – how dare you. You should be ashamed,” noted another commenter in reaction to one of Patz’ facebook posts.
Others praised our council for prioritizing “people over property.”
Pleasanton Weekly columnist Tim Hunt was probably the most critical of our Emeryville officials. “[Patz] took pains to assert the right to protest and the need to change without any condemnation of the criminals looting his city’s businesses.”
Hunt commended Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern for being the “adult in the room” for his decision to call a countywide curfew to deter further looting. Councilmember Medina later took a jab at Ahern via Twitter for apparently implementing this curfew amid her city being looted saying she would work to unseat him in 2022. “I got $$ to give any reasonably progressive candidate who will challenge ALCO Sheriff in ’22. I will host a fundraiser, help w/ endorsements + organize voter outreach. As we watch injustice erupt let’s remember we have plenty we can do here.”
Councilmember Dianne Martinez was the only local leader that defended our city being ravaged or expressed any empathy for local residents, businesses or their employees (folx is considered a more inclusive, gender-neutral term of the term “folks”).
Dear folx who have insinuated that Emeryville deserved what it got last night: POC shop here. POC live here. POC own businesses that were looted. Be kind.
— Dianne Martinez (@EmeryvilleDi) May 31, 2020
Some news organizations like The L.A. Times have moved away from using the word “looting“ as they argue it can have a racial connotation.
Councilmember Scott Donahue does not maintain an active social media presence.
Residents Reaction: Anger, Sadness, Violation, Empathy
The resident reaction was a mixture of sadness, anger and empathy. There seemed to be a large disparity between members of the Emeryville Community and those of neighbors in Oakland and Berkeley that were less impacted.
“It’s obvious we all feel anger, dismay, frustration. Our world is now too fragile to tolerate any more injustice and Inequality — That has to stop,“ noted one Nextdoor commenter from an Emeryville Neighborhood. “But directing more anger and judgment at each other is not the solution.”
“Angry. Frustrated. Hopeless.” noted “Kenya” who also identified herself as an Emeryville resident “As a Black woman living in Emeryville, A bay area native and mother to young black men, I grew up thinking I can be and do anything. I grew up in the most diverse, liberal beautiful city. But there is no hope right now. The fear I have for my black child, for my black husband will never be understood. The anger I hear about looting, protesting, only reminds me that of this.”
Many expressed the opinion that since these businesses were presumably insured, that the impacts from this event would not be felt longterm.
Tough Road Ahead for Local Businesses
Businesses, already ailing from being forced to close for an extended period due to the pandemic, now have the additional burden of fixing the destruction suffered. Despite being closed for many months, they’ll also be faced with our city’s annual CPI-based minimum wage increase to $16.86 adding to Emeryville already highest in the nation minimum wage.
The economic damage could further erode our city’s sales tax revenues already projected to have a nearly two million annual shortfall over the next two budget cycles. Our city is already approaching a dozen confirmed business closures with more likely on the way.
In response to the damage, the City Of Emeryville approved a Resolution re-appropriating $200,000 from the Façade Improvement Program to a “Local Business Recovery Program.”
Feature Image of Metro PCS: Nick Sebastian, Worldwide Communications