Over the weekend, thousands of protesters took to Albany’s streets to protest police brutality. While the larger demonstrations have been peaceful, a string of lootings Saturday night left dozens of city businesses boarding up their windows and picking up the pieces. WAMC’s Jesse King checked in with store owners on Central Avenue.
Before Saturday, before COVID-19 — Central Avenue would be a lot louder. Home to WAMC’s main studio, the street is also home to many languages, ethnicities and different types of small businesses, many of them family and minority-owned markets, bars, restaurants, and hair salons. Now, many of those same businesses – if they’re open – operate behind plywood barriers.
Empire Cash and Carry Manager Ali Nigi says he and his boss watched Saturday’s violence unfold in real time when the store’s security system was triggered.
“I come in and I see a lot of people outside, a lot of traffic. I tried, much as I can, to get to the back [of the store], and it was too late. More than 80 people were inside the store already," says Nigi. "You can’t do nothing, you can’t defense nothing, you can’t do nothing – in case you hurt yourself. And then we go in, we started yelling from the back, and then everybody took off. Go to the next, go to the next, go to the next. They take turns. When they’re finished with the first store, they go to the second one.”
Nigi estimates the store’s damages at over $15,000. In addition to breaking the main windows, he says the looters busted the store’s computer system, shattered glass cabinets, and took off with items like candy and rolling papers.
Anthony Capece, a WAMC Board member and executive director of the Central Avenue Business Improvement District, says retail stores like Empire Cash and Carry were the hardest hit. He worries that, with businesses already struggling due to COVID-19, they might not be able to repair their storefronts or even pay their insurance deductables.
"We're still trying to get a handle on how impactful this is," he notes. "I mean, some of these folks have really struggled with 20 percent of typical sales, 30 percent of typical sales. The restaurants, at best, I'm assuming 30 to 40 percent, with no sit-down dining. So having to replace windows and doors on top of that, spending out-of-pocket money of $1,000 to $2,000 is really painful."
Not far from Empire Cash and Carry, Top Quality Beauty Supply opened its doors for the first time in two months on Friday – and suffered roughly $25,000 in theft and damages a day later. CVS, one of three in the city, was so battered it’s now directing customers to the New Scotland Avenue location for their prescriptions.
Kwasi Addo-Baffour is the owner of Breakthrough African Market, which has been selling dry African and Caribbean produce on Central Ave for more than a decade. He says his store got lucky: aside from some broken glass and a little money stolen from the cash register, the looters passed him by.
“Here, you see that nothing is important to them. We just saw on the camera, one guy just pick up a Red Bull can, and then just went out," Addo-Baffour explains. "He took the money and then he pick up the – we watched it on the camera.”
Addo-Baffour says his alarm system alerted police Saturday night, but with officers clashing with protesters, no one showed up. Capece urges shopkeepers to file a police report as soon as possible to help the city assess the damage – and to keep their receipts.
"The government will sometimes create a program of a tax break if you're in a disaster zone or something like that. And I'm trying to remind people that, no matter what happens during COVID or in this particular case — keep your receipts," Capece explains. "I know that sounds like really dumb advice, but if you have to recreate this a year from now, and you bought nails and screws and face masks for your employees, or you had to pay for somebody to come do this or do that — you have a record of that."
Capece says the Central BID is working on ways to help.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced a series of programs to help those affected by COVID-19 Monday – including a business donation fund to set up grants for those impacted by the weekend’s destruction. Sarah Reginelli, president of the Capitalize Albany Corporation, says applications will be available soon through the city’s Small Business Facade Improvement and Retail Grant programs.
"The program that we are able to mobilize quickly, starting this week, will allow those business owners who were impacted by this weekend's event to come in and ask for relief and assistance to help mitigate those damages," says Reginelli.
As protests continue, many store owners on Central Avenue – and in the Capital Region in general – are boarding up their windows as a precaution. Addo-Baffour says he’s frustrated by the situation, and hopes things calm down soon.
"I'm not against demonstration. Everybody has the right to do demonstration — but do it peacefully," he asks. "Saturday afternoon we were here, we saw people marching, and I said 'This is cool, this is nice.' And all of a sudden it turned out to be a violence. And that's no good."
Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins and Mayor Sheehan have differentiated between peaceful protesters and people damaging property.