Aurora Businesses Starting to Reopen Hit by Demonstration Damage

Businesses in downtown Aurora were just beginning to reopen under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan. Then they were hit by property damage and theft after peaceful protests on Sunday turned destructive. 

Elias Akwo had just opened Crystal House, an art gallery that sells his wife’s paintings and high-end crystal that Akow engraves, in downtown Aurora in December, only to have to shut down months later due to the coronavirus.

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And then, on Sunday night, crowds that branched off from what had been a peaceful protest against police brutality, crashed in the shop’s front windows and knocked down the display of his finest crystals that was in the front window to entice shoppers. The delicate crystals were chipped, scratched, or shattered – ruined, including a crystal sculpture he’d made of downtown Chicago worth thousands of dollars, not counting the painstaking work he’d put into it.

Akwo said as a black man he understands what’s driving the movement; he has lived it.

But he doesn’t accept it resulting in destruction.

“These are realities that we face. The problems, they’re not new. But there are ways of dealing with the problem. It’s not going about destroying property. That I do not tolerate,” he said.

Akow doesn’t know now when he’ll reopen, or what he’ll do about a large order set for Japan that already had to be delayed once due to COVID-19.

Interactive: More from our series, COVID-19 Across Chicago.

But he’s heartened that even before he arrived at his shop, the people who live in the apartment above it had tried to protect it and to clean up; a neighbor down the street donated boards to cover where the front windows had been.

James Buzzard and Denzel Hudson, say they have gotten a lot of support from – and in turn support – their city.

They said they took part in the lengthy march on Sunday in protest of injustice, and of a system that systemically unfairly punishes black men like them.

Buzzard said it was peaceful until police used tear gas.

As the owner of BuzzLabs Creative, Buzzard said he’s torn about what happened.

“I get why the emotions are high and everything. But at the same time, these private business owners didn’t do anything, they didn’t deserve to have their windows broken, “ he said. “It is sad to see that but at the same time I see why people have emotions like that.”

Hudson said he doesn’t want to see property destroyed, and that he wants the people who looted downtown Aurora businesses to know that their actions will delay advancements in the city he grew up in.

But he said he’s learned from history that the “only way to rebel” and to make change is to take drastic actions.

“We come in peace,” he said. “In a perfect world, I wish we could find a day where we could just sit down and discuss things, and get change, but for now this is the way that we’re getting results.”

More from downtown Aurora:

Police Chief Kristen Ziman said the protests went on for hours peacefully, honoring the memory of George Floyd.

“And then, the opportunists showed up. They didn't care about justice or peace. They were there to loot and to burn. It quickly turned violent in the downtown area where many businesses and buildings were damaged. They set fires to dumpsters, to squad cars, to buildings. They smashed windows. They stole from our hardworking business owners who were slated to open today,” she said at a Monday press conference.

Mayor Richard Irvin said as a black man in America, he understands the pain and supports the peaceful protesters.

But he had a stern warning for anyone thinking about violent or destructive acts.

“Aurora will be ready for you if you come to our community and attempt to cause destruction. We will not put up with this BS and foolishness. We won't put up with outsiders coming and wreaking havoc,” he said. “We will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law and we already have with those who were identified last night. Read my lips: this I guarantee.”

Irvin said he believes people who had traveled to Aurora from elsewhere were primarily responsible for the destruction of downtown buildings and businesses.

Heading into Sunday, Jason Morales’ restaurant already had brown paper sheets covering the windows – but it wasn’t a precaution because of protests.

The restaurant, Mora’s on the River, is brand new, its planned-for opening delayed some because construction stalled when crews couldn’t get masks during the pandemic.

The interior is less important now; due to health regulations in place because of COVID-19, restaurant patrons will all be seated outside, in a large patio that he’d originally planned to use for special events.

“We’re going to open this outdoor restaurant. I hate to say but the timing is perfect to do one, given the situation that we’re in,” he said. “This will be the most ideal outdoor restaurant, while we’re practicing social distancing and everything we’ve learned in the past two months. The Mora Aurora will be the tip of the sword when it comes to outdoor dining.”

The Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce has been working to help businesses prepare to reopen after their monthslong pause because of the pandemic, working through concerns like child care and how to screen customers and employees for potential coronavirus symptoms.

“You walk into a retail establishment, how do you still make that a comfortable environment as a customer, but make sure that everybody’s safe coming in,” chamber president Jessica Linder Gallo said.

Now, there’s a new concern for employers: What if what happened on Sunday happens again?

Gallo said the chamber is advising businesses to be safe and to follow curfew.

On Monday evening, as a new round of protests got underway, the city blocked off the roads leading into downtown and at the direction of the Illinois State Police the entrance ramps of I-88 leading to Aurora were closed.

The more violent protests appeared instead to have taken place in neighboring Naperville, where multiple downtown businesses faced damage.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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