Ferguson: Race relations, looting and friendship

Sonny Dayan picks up a bat and smashes the front door of his business over and over and over again. He’s finishing the job looters started when they broke through part of the glass front door to his mobile and bill payment store in Ferguson, Missouri.

“This is the fourth time in a year and a half that I’ve had a break-in. This is the mildest one yet. The mildest one yet. The last time, that was in November, the whole store, the whole front was busted. All of the shelves were destroyed completely,” Dayan said.

Dayan has built his business and relationships with his customers over 20 years at his store. But he has also suffered the consequences of being on West Florissant when the street saw four months of daily protests that sporadically turned violent after white Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown after the two got into a scuffle on August 9, 2014.

Things have calmed since November, when fires and looting raged on his street after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. The boards have come down from most of the businesses’ windows, the customers are trickling back and while things aren’t back to normal, they were beginning to get better.

Then Baltimore happened.

“Sitting at home and watching the Baltimore riots feels like déjà vu for us. It feels like I’m going to get a call every five minutes,” Dayan said

Sure enough, he got a call the day after Baltimore burned due to riots. Police told Dayan a group broke through his door and the Family Dollar next door and began hauling items out.

The protesters were back. Ferguson city officials said 200 gathered Tuesday. During that protest three people were shot by someone in or around the crowd, terrifying some of the protesters, whose screams could be heard on cell phone video posted on social media sites. Rocks were hurled at police and their cars, which sustained damage. Police were also unable to investigate one of the shootings right away because of the rocks coming at them.

Then Wednesday another smaller protest appeared on the same street. Dayan’s store became a target again. After the protest, a group broke into his store, again.

Despite the hardships, the frustration and the expense, Dayan said he is determined to stay put. When we ask him why, he points to the guy next to him.

“Because of people like this,” he said.

The guy he’s referring to is black, young and underemployed and working his butt off trying to make sure Dayan’s store is secure. Steve Smith is taking an electric screwdriver to the plywood being used to protect the business.

“I’m just trying to help him get back. I’m trying to help him put the board back just so he can sleep tonight, so we both can sleep tonight,” Smith said.

Smith and Dayan met when Dayan hired him years ago to do odd jobs around the store. They formed a friendship. So, in the middle of the night when Smith’s phone rang and Dayan told him what happened, Smith, who didn’t have his own car, scrambled to get a ride to help out.

Both men, one born with white skin and the other with black skin, are well aware of the frustration continuing to simmer and sometimes boil over in America, and Ferguson in particular.

Both are cognizant that race relations and police relations with the black community are particularly raw and perhaps growing worse in Ferguson since the protests.

The two work side by side as friends, with Dayan praising the police for their help in his many run-ins with looters, and Smith talking of the frustration with police experienced by the black community.

Dayan said, “I thank the police for coming and helping me.”

And Smith said, “The police and, I would say, the black community, they don’t get along. Its no secret, you know.”

One thing they can both agree on is that violence begets violence.

“I understand the movement. I understand why they (the protesters) are out here, but to just destroy buildings to get the point across, that’s going too far. You know what I’m saying? It’s too far,” Smith said as he finished putting the plywood on the broken door.

Meanwhile, Dayan swept up the glass from his door, choking on the dust and trying to come to terms with what keeps happening to him and the community where he works, which he says needs more education, more job opportunities and more people who treat residents as human beings, not less than human.

“Yes things need to be changed, yes we have issues of course, but you know, destroying my windows won’t change your life. Your life is not going to be a better life tomorrow because my windows are broken,” Dayan said.

He said he worries that race relations may be getting worse not better in his town, and perhaps across the country, after the modern civil rights movement started right outside his shop in Ferguson.

“I just don’t want us to go backward,” he said, “Some folks will say this whole community is terrible. Or to hell with black Americans or, you know, it sends a wrong message.”

Then, in a show of emotion, Dayan included himself as a member of the same community, saying, “We don’t deserve it. We work very hard and, you know, we just want to have a normal life.”

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