Takada Epps runs a hair salon and cosmetology school in Auburn Gresham where many of the employees need help getting back on their feet after serving time in prison.
Oanh Huynh’s family came to the U.S. from Vietnam and eventually established a nail salon in West Pullman, achieving their “ultimate American Dream” of opening a business in a neighborhood they have come to love.
Ilesh Shah filled prescriptions for 30 years to Roseland’s seniors and those without access to transportation.
These entrepreneurs saw their shops and livelihoods battered during the looting and violence that erupted one year ago in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.
The murder prompted not just largely peaceful protests and a national reckoning on race, but also sputtering efforts to improve policing. Floyd’s death, along with other high-profile killings of Black people at the hands of police, inspired hundreds of everyday people to organize on behalf of social justice.
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Now a Tribune investigation for the first time has documented the scope of the destruction and violence that unfolded across Chicago during the spasms of chaos last spring. Drawing on government records and interviews with store owners, employees, business associations and politicians, the Tribune identified more than 2,100 businesses that were damaged or ransacked throughout Chicago from May 29 to June 4, 2020.
The Tribune found that damage estimates to just 710 of the impacted businesses totaled more than $165 million, though the true cost is certainly much higher. Loss and damage estimates were not available for the rest of the businesses, and police reports often only listed partial estimates.
The figure exceeds the estimated $77 million in damages in today’s dollars that occurred during the April 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The unrest more than 50 years ago was more geographically limited, unfolding largely on the West Side.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” as King observed, and last year’s unrest flared during a time of protests over police violence against Black people that also saw a surge in shootings, joblessness and a deadly pandemic.
This story captures not just the property damage attributed to the unrest and the broader economic impact in South and West side neighborhoods least equipped to recover after suffering from decades of disinvestment and neglect, but also looks at the emotional toll, including lives that were lost.
The Tribune found that 15 people were shot and killed in crimes tied to the unrest. Most of the homicides occurred Sunday, May 31 — the height of the destruction. In addition, at least 53 people were shot and wounded during one of the most turbulent periods in Chicago history.
Some looters carried guns. The Tribune counted at least 57 weapons seized by police, including assault-style rifles and semi-automatic handguns with extended magazines that hold 30 bullets.
A Tribune review of police and court records identified 157 people who were charged with felonies stemming from civil unrest and looting in Chicago, far fewer than Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office had indicated.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and police have come under intense criticism for fumbling the response. They missed signals that the killing of Floyd, captured on video and played millions of times by horrified Americans, could touch off looting. And to this day, they face resentment that the city prioritized the protection of downtown at the expense of residential neighborhoods inhabited mostly by people of color.
“They could have done more to stop it when it was starting,” said Shah, whose Far South Side pharmacy suffered $100,000 in damages. “I think they just decided to protect the downtown area but, out here in the neighborhoods, just let it slide.”
The mayor has denied her administration prioritized the safety of downtown residents and businesses. “There is no way, no way we would ever let any neighborhood receive more resources and protection than any others. Ever,” Lightfoot said last June after two days of looting. “That certainly didn’t happen over the course of the weekend.”
But an internal police email the Tribune obtained through an open records request calls into question the mayor’s assertion.
At the height of the looting, the commander of a Near West Side police district told bosses there were not enough officers to respond to widespread looting, property damage and gang problems “as a result of the district being completely depleted.” Every officer on two specialized patrol teams was sent to assist others protecting downtown, noted the commander, who added a striking detail.
“The gangs regularly monitor our radio zones and know we had substantial staffing issues,” wrote Cmdr. Stephen Chung, who at the time led the 12th District that includes Pilsen. Chung declined to comment.
Newly obtained emails also show that in some parts of the city, Lightfoot aides worried about the potential for escalating violence between Blacks and Latinos.
“I will underscore the importance of us huddling to sync up on this ASAP,’” Candace Moore, Lightfoot’s chief equity officer, wrote in an email. “I am getting a lot of feedback (as I am sure you all are) about potential race wars and I think we have to get in front of it as much as possible.”
The Lightfoot administration and police had been warned the unrest over Floyd’s murder could escalate into violence and looting, according to the newly obtained emails.
On May 28, two days before the major downtown Floyd protests, the Police Department’s intelligence-gathering arm alerted commanders that an individual was encouraging rioting and said he wanted to burn down an Auburn Gresham police station.
The following day, commanders were cautioned about social media chatter calling for people to “Loot Don’t Shoot,” in a post that encouraged looting at Water Tower Place using the hashtags #Chicago #riots #GeorgeFloyd and #looting.
Police Superintendent David Brown forwarded both warnings to Lightfoot and her staff.
Lightfoot’s office declined to comment. Police Department spokesman Don Terry did not directly answer a series of Tribune questions about the department’s response, including whether it concentrated resources on safeguarding downtown at the expense of neighborhoods.
“The Chicago Police Department is constantly assessing the deployment of resources to ensure the safety of residents and visitors throughout Chicago, including the central business district and our neighborhoods,” Terry said.
The first signs of unrest surfaced the night of Friday, May 29. Brown said protests “started peacefully and ended more aggressive and intense” as windows were broken in some downtown businesses. The next day saw ramped-up protests that included clashes with police.
By Saturday evening, the calls on social media to loot at Water Tower Place had become a reality. People smashed windows at the Michigan Avenue mall and looted the Macy’s department store. Looters also hit the Macy’s on State Street, prompting an unidentified store official to text a Lightfoot aide that the recently remodeled store was being “decimated” as people stole jewelry, handbags and other merchandise.
As the looting spread into other parts of the city, all manner of businesses were hit — shoe stores, clothing stores, nail salons, restaurants, auto dealerships, dollar stores, furniture stores, banks, cellphone stores, jewelry stores, auto parts stores, convenience stores, big-box retailers and grocery stores. Arsonists set fire to at least 71 buildings.
Terrified workers in neighborhood stores hid in locked bathrooms or ran out the door ahead of approaching mobs, according to police reports and interviews.
Looters tied up a restaurant worker who was cleaning up at night. An employee at Jamaican Jerk King in the Douglas neighborhood told the Tribune that looters smashed the door and windows to gain entry. “They told him that ‘if you make a move, we will kill you,’ ” the employee recalled.
An employee at Fresh Kickz clothing store in Little Village said she and a co-worker, both pregnant at the time, hid in a bathroom from looters while her manager took cover in a storage room.
“We just ran and hid,” Nikki Miller, 22, told the Tribune. “It was a little bit scary. Anything could have happened to us.”
Miller said she supports peaceful protests but what happened that day inside her workplace was something far different. “Especially in low-income neighborhoods where people need places to shop and work, it’s just opportunistic,” she said.
Pharmacies were hit hard. More than 700,000 prescription pills were stolen and ended up on the streets, said Todd Smith, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago office. He said about a quarter million of those doses were prescription drugs deemed to have a high potential for abuse such as morphine sulfate, hydromorphone, Adderall and fentanyl patches.
The Tribune identified 121 Walgreens and CVS stores and at least 10 independent pharmacies that were looted or damaged. Walgreens said it planned to spend $35 million to rebuild and restock city pharmacies. CVS declined to discuss damage to its Chicago stores.
Looters carried off a safe with as much as $400,000 in cannabis products and about $235,000 in cash from a marijuana dispensary now known as nuEra, according to police reports. It was one of seven dispensaries that were damaged or broken into.
NuEra spokesman Jonah Rapino said police were occupied elsewhere and did not show up until hours later. “They had the run of the place and had all the time to take what they wanted,” he said.
About 300,000 instant lottery tickets were taken from stores. The stolen tickets were deactivated, and less than $16,000 in prizes were paid out, Illinois Lottery spokeswoman Meghan Powers said in a statement.
About 3,000 vehicle license plates and registration stickers from currency exchanges were looted, and more than 60 cars were stolen from two South Western Avenue auto dealerships. Dave Druker, spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state’s office, said the stolen plate numbers were entered into law enforcement computers to alert police should they stop a vehicle with stolen plates.
Some small business owners who were looted declined to talk to the Tribune, saying they feared being targeted again or they had moved on and didn’t want to relive the trauma.
Others agreed to share their memories, telling of their frustration when police didn’t respond to their pleas for help and of how some tried to defend their businesses.
Hak Tong Kim owns City Fashions, a women’s clothing store at 34th Street and King Drive. As looters descended on the Lake Meadows Shopping Center, Kim picked up a hammer stapler he said had been discarded by someone who had used it to smash windows.
Holding the metal tool and standing guard, the 59-year-old Kim said he pleaded with people to leave his store alone.
“I said, ‘Please don’t. This is a small store.’ I spoke to them nice,” Kim recalled. “Of course, I’m scared and angry, both. I keep thinking if I had my insurance, I would have given up early. But I don’t have that coverage, so that’s why I watch my store. I didn’t have a choice.”
The store was spared for the moment, but as evening came and the crowds swelled, Kim’s family and employees pleaded with him to leave. Kim stood in a nearby parking lot and watched as looters hit his store. He turned and went home.
Kim said he suffered about $350,000 in damages. His two children started a GoFundMe campaign, raised $215,000 and Kim reopened within four months.
Kim’s daughter, Hannah, wrote a message thanking the donors and told of how difficult it was watching her optimistic, hardworking father give up hope. “While I truly empathize with people’s outrage in the unjust treatment of African Americans, how can these protests justify destruction of innocent people’s livelihood?” she wrote.
People offered different reasons for looting, according to police reports.
“The whole world is doing it,” one man told police. Said another: “I’m just following the leader.” One person found inside a shoe store said he took items for his 3-year-old son, while another said he was “hungry, looking for something to eat.”
Some people who brought guns told police it was for their safety. “I have my guns for protection,” said one man. “It’s crazy out there.” Another, who lived in Indiana, said: “You think I’m gonna come to Chicago and do all this s--- and not have my gun on me?”
Store owners and police reports describe some of the thefts as highly coordinated. There were caravans that used rented trucks to cart off stolen goods. Looters carried crowbars, saws, bolt cutters and drills to break into stores and to crack open safes and ATMs.
James Leuthe, who owns five city Wireless Waves stores, said his shops and others nearby were wiped out.
“People were prepared,” he said. “They had a truck, hammers, flashlights and other tools. They didn’t look like looters. They looked like contractors.”
Leuthe said he has reopened his stores. But other businesses remain closed, adding to economic blight in some neighborhoods.
The looting also temporarily shut down many grocery stores and pharmacies in areas where the absence of those shops was deeply felt.
After the Save A Lot grocery in the Washington Park neighborhood was cleaned out, police officials discussed the need for restocking it.
“This grocery store is located near the Parkway Gardens community that houses a multitude of disadvantaged families, as well as a large senior population who depend on Save A Lot for their necessities,” a police captain wrote in a June 1 email.
Many small business owners reopened but took a financial hit because they were underinsured or had no insurance.
Takada Epps owns Takada Udlet Salon & Day Spa in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Epps said she closed because of the pandemic and let her insurance lapse because money was not coming in.
She opened back up a week before civil unrest erupted. On May 31, looters smashed windows and stole clippers, curling irons, televisions and an Xbox. Epps took out a personal loan to reopen her business, which employs individuals recently released from prison.
“I thought about my employees,” said Epps, who has owned the salon since 2009. “If I give up, that tells them they can give up too, and that’s not OK. You can’t have that kind of perspective because it’s going to take you down a tunnel of negativity.”
A year after the unrest, Brent Kim is unsure if he will reopen one of his sports apparel stores, SNYX. The shop, at 112th Place and Michigan Avenue, sustained about $600,000 in losses, and insurance covered less than half, he said.
“I don’t think the timing is right yet,” said Kim, who is aware of community tensions over continued controversial police shootings in Chicago. “There’s still the possibility of other things like that happening again.”
Echoing the sentiments of other small store owners interviewed by the Tribune, Kim said Lightfoot abandoned the neighborhoods. “The mayor just gave away the South Side to protect downtown,” he said.
A rise in violence
The period of May 29 through June 4 was a particularly violent one in Chicago. A total of 44 people were killed and 157 others were shot and wounded, according to police and medical examiner records, with 19 homicides coming on May 31 alone.
The Tribune identified 15 homicides and 53 shootings tied to that week’s unrest based on official police narratives and records that mentioned it as a factor.
The killings included a man shot in the head and found near two looted Chase ATMs, the brother of a man who told police that he was shot while looting, and a man shot in his car where police said they found “approximately $5,000 worth of high-line clothing containing the original price tags and a gas can with a saturated rag sticking out from the nozzle.”
One killing in the South Austin neighborhood took place May 31, when Tommie Gatewood, 27, and two others stopped a man from looting Bob’s Liquors and Groceries on West Madison Street.
The man left, but soon returned with a .40-caliber handgun, according to police reports. Police said the man fired multiple times, killing Gatewood and wounding the others.
Weeks later, police arrested Jermaine Sneed and accused him of the shootings. “These victims,” Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said in announcing the arrest, “I’m just going to classify them as good community members who were trying to do the right thing.”
Also fatally shot May 31 was John Tiggs, who died at a Metro PCS cellphone store at 81st and Halsted that remains boarded up a year later.
A man listed in state records as the store’s president told the Tribune in a brief interview that Tiggs and a teenager were among those looting. The man’s father shot and killed Tiggs and wounded the teen, according to police reports. Tiggs’ family disputes that account, saying the 32-year-old Dolton man was simply paying his phone bill when he was fatally shot.
The mother of the 15-year-old boy who was shot and wounded is suing the store. Paul Meyers, the lawyer for the family that owns the store, said the two men feared for their lives.
The police investigation included a review of several security cameras. Prosecutors declined to file charges.
Two men were shot and wounded the night of Saturday, May 30, while sitting at a red light near Oak and Rush streets, where numerous high-end stores were being looted at the time. According to a police report, the gunman asked before firing: “Are you with the movement? We are purging.”
Other shootings tied to the unrest included two men wounded while buying looted liquor, another shot by a group of fleeing looters, and yet another shot while taking video of the destruction.
A bullet grazed the top of Jocelyn Campos’ head May 31 as she stood near her father on her block and took iPhone video of throngs of looters in her Archer Heights neighborhood.
“At first I thought it was fireworks but then I saw everyone ducking and running and next thing you know I’ve got something dripping down my face,” recalled Campos, a 19-year-old college student. “I was gushing blood. There was blood everywhere.”
Police reports and Lightfoot administration emails show city leaders were worried about street gangs filling the vacuum in some neighborhoods where police presence was limited. Gangs provided street security in Little Village, parts of the Southwest Side and the Far Southeast Side, according to police reports.
Gang members “were fortifying” the area around 106th Street and Ewing Avenue to protect businesses, police said. Standing guard made the Latin King members targets for drive-by shootings from their rivals.
One gang member was shot in the leg around 7:30 p.m. June 1. On the same block a couple hours later, a second gang member was shot in the abdomen in a drive-by, according to a police report. More than 30 rounds were fired.
“While acting as street security for these businesses,” according to the police report, “rival gang members took the opportunity to shoot into the crowd of gang members, hitting the victims.”
On June 2, the Police Department’s intelligence-gathering arm sent an alert that social media posts had indicated retaliation violence could unfold in Little Village between the Latin Kings and Black gangs coming into the area, according to police records.
That same day, Lightfoot aides worried about the potential for escalating violence, discussing the growing tensions in a series of morning emails. Moore, the chief equity officer, wanted a meeting to discuss “potential race wars.”
Susan Lee, then deputy mayor for public safety, asked that Lightfoot’s director of violence prevention be added to the email string. “He is working with outreach on (defusing) some of the black/brown dynamic emerging from street groups due to neighborhoods trying to protect the stores.”
Maurice Classen, Lightfoot’s chief of staff, weighed in. “OK, what is the plan? What is the strategy? How should we communicate about it? Let’s move.”
Police officials said they don’t know how many people were injured, but the neighborhood tensions ebbed over the next few days. On June 3, Latino and Black Chicagoans organized on the Southwest Side and elsewhere in the city, joining peace marches and engaging in other collective actions in an attempt to avoid more violence between the two communities.
Few arrests, prosecutions
Despite the level of violence and destruction, few people were arrested or prosecuted, the Tribune found.
Superintendent Brown blamed State’s Attorney Foxx and the court system. In turn, Foxx said she was holding looters accountable, but the Tribune found that she overstated the numbers on how many were charged with felonies in Chicago.
For police, the failures were a combination of no plan for making mass arrests, and unrest so widespread that it sometimes prevented officers from locating crime scenes to gather evidence or to interview witnesses, documents show.
For example, one police report noted that “due to lootings occurring,” a detective would not be going to the crime scene to investigate an early morning May 31 shooting at 65th and South Hermitage Avenue. Another report about a shooting at 87th Street near the Dan Ryan Expressway noted there was “no crime scene due to the looting and rioting.”
When a second round of looting occurred last August, Lightfoot and Brown blamed Foxx and judges for not being tougher on criminals from the earlier round.
“Criminals took to the street with the confidence that there would be no consequences for their actions,” Brown said last summer.
What Brown did not say was that police also were at fault. The inspector general’s office, which investigated the city’s response to the protests and looting, in February reported that Brown and his department failed to have plans for making mass arrests. That led to people facing criminal charges that were too serious or too light, or not being charged at all.
One sergeant told the inspector general his officers stopped arresting people for looting because it was taking too long for transport vehicles to arrive on the scene.
Distrust of the state’s attorney ran high among some CPD officers, emails show.
On June 1, Lt. David Weigand of the detective bureau emailed Anthony Riccio, then the department’s first deputy superintendent.
“I highly doubt any accountability will be upheld by our state’s attorneys office so I was thinking of some other action the Chicago Police Department could utilize without involving 26th Street,” a colloquial reference to the criminal courthouse at 26th and California. “Not sure how it would fly with City Hall but there has to be accountability otherwise the next time this occurs it will be worse.”
Weigand suggested that the department review dash camera video from squad cars to identify vehicles used in looting and impound those vehicles. “The case against the vehicle would be heard at impound court and accountability would be sought without 26th Street involved.”
Riccio wrote back that he liked the idea and said the department should also pursue criminal charges against individuals who ransacked stores. “A lot of these stores have good video,” Riccio wrote. “We should do what we can to identify and arrest them. This was way too easy for them.”
Weigand declined to comment.
Terry, the police spokesman, said the department “would not be addressing” questions about Foxx or officers’ views of the state’s attorney.
Foxx defended her office last summer, saying prosecutors were holding looters accountable.
In response to Tribune inquiries, Foxx’s office provided the names of 291 people it said were charged with felonies related to the civil unrest and looting in Chicago.
But the Tribune found a number of those cases had nothing to do with looting. One 36-year-old man was arrested for allegedly breaking windows at an elementary school because, as he told police, the school had ruined his childhood. Another case involved a man charged with domestic battery, and another man allegedly stole $36 in change from an unlocked car.
Foxx’s office also included 111 cases from outside Chicago.
Spokeswoman Tandra Simonton acknowledged that some of the felony cases were unrelated to civil unrest, but said the state’s attorney’s office did not inflate its numbers.
“Whatever cases Chicago police sent to us, we charged,” she said.
The Tribune identified 157 people charged with felonies related to the unrest and looting in Chicago based on a review of state and federal court records, police documents and Foxx’s list.
Those include three men who allegedly tried to pry open a Citibank ATM with a crowbar, saw and power drill; three individuals accused of being part of a four-vehicle caravan suspected of looting a shoe store; and a man caught climbing out of a broken window at Macy’s on State Street carrying a suitcase containing a Calvin Klein dress shirt, tie and socks.
Prosecutions were slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic as courthouses shut down and people worked from home. A year later, 28 people have been convicted — 17 were sentenced to probation, three to prison, two received credit for time served and six are awaiting sentencing. Another eight people had their charges dropped. One hundred twenty one of the 157 cases are still pending.
Lingering anger, fear
Many business owners expressed gratitude for the support they received from their customers and communities during the last year, including fundraising campaigns.
They also are worried about more trouble this summer.
Marvin Patel said insurance proceeds helped him remodel after people trashed the Subway restaurants he owns in North Lawndale. But he and other business owners still deal with fear of events that might spark looting.
“Everybody’s scared to work,” he said. “Obviously, business-wise it’s really tough to run a business like that.”
Others said they remain upset the city didn’t do more to protect them.
“The police officers were just standing by,” said Brent Kim, whose Roseland sports apparel store was looted. “It left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Ray Khouchaba, general manager of a Toyota dealership on South Western Avenue in the West Englewood neighborhood, said looters stole 42 vehicles from the car lot. A year later, he’s still angry.
“They had a free ticket to do what they wanted,” Khouchaba said. “The cops did nothing to stop it. It was terrible. The message is that if you’re a criminal, you can do anything you want and get away with it. The city of Chicago will not be the same because of it.”