It wasn’t out of towners.
It wasn’t white radicals or foreign agents.
It was Rochesterians.
As hour after hour of wanton destruction and looting left windows shattered, businesses ruined and buildings burning, that wasn’t somebody else. It was us.
There were three groups of people – protestorsThere were three groups of people – protesters, rioters and looters. Perhaps the second infiltrated the first, but they did not cause the third.
Something within us caused the third. Something within the heart of Rochester, perhaps within the heart of urban America. Something that opportunistically turned neighbors into predators, some simmering impulse to violence and theft that spontaneously turned thousands of Rochesterians into marauders.
And that’s not about George Floyd, or racist cops, or Antifas busing in.
That’s Rochester. That’s us.
And it’s an ugly face in the mirror.
Early Saturday evening, as a phalanx of Rochester officers was clearing the Liberty Pole, the mayor stood in front of the television cameras and, with her police chief, said that it wasn’t “our community.” She said it was outsiders. Speaking of the rioters who had destroyed automobiles and broken into the state attorney general’s office and tried to battle with the police in front of the Public Safety Building, she said it was them, not us. She thundered passionately about the victimization of black people, and pointed the finger of blame to the outside.
Outside the city which had spent a good part of the afternoon under a literal pall of black billowing smoke.
That’s not Rochester, she said.
But it is.
As the next 12 hours were to prove.
Were there anarchist agitators involved in the initial confrontation outside the Public Safety Building, the one that first brought out the pepper balls and the riot gear? Possibly. And some of them might certainly have been from outside the city of Rochester. They did seem to be disproportionately white, as contrasted with the earlier demonstration and the later looting. But there is a large anarchist community in Rochester and its suburbs, and many of those involved in the worst of the Public Safety Building confrontation are regulars at Rochester protests, and it looks like the much-photographed cowboy-hat man is a city resident. One person in the group at the most confrontational time may even have been a local elected official.
But even if every single rioter at the Public Safety Building was transported here from the moon, this would still be about us.
Because the burning cars were for the TV cameras.
The real damage was uncorking across downtown at Villa, a black-owned business, as the first of two of its locations was smashed into and gutted. Yes, there were broken skyscraper windows and graffiti against the police, but the tidal wave that swept over Rochester through Saturday night was about hatred and greed.
As business after business, plaza after plaza, neighborhood after neighborhood were effected, it was invariably locals rising up, often victimizing stores and storeowners they had known and frequented for years. That is the report of stunned shopkeepers who were pillaged by their regulars.
Even the fire department, the presumed bridge between the city and the neighbors, the friends to all who render assistance to all, was repeatedly struck. The memorial honoring firefighters who died in the line of duty was defaced and spray painted. Engine 1 had its windows smashed in and its hoses dragged out and one of its firefighters hospitalized. Firefighters out of their truck on Joseph Avenue were mobbed and their apparatus looted and had to call for the police to come lights and sirens to their rescue. Engine 5, the jewel of Lyell Avenue, was mobbed by some 400 people who surrounded the firehouse and threw rocks and bottles at the firefighters. It took an entire police task force to free the firefighters, the businesses up and down the avenue all shattered and empty.
And that was the story in every neighborhood.
There was looting on Genesee Street at the same time there was looting on Hudson Avenue.
From Goodman Plaza to the Culver Road Armory. Smash and grab, smash and grab, smash and grab. Some who ran, arms full of every conceivable type of merchandise, scurried to nearby homes to unload and then head out for more. Others filled idling family vehicles outside, hopscotching from crime scene to crime scene.
That isn’t outsiders and anarchists.
That’s Rochester. That’s us.
That’s not about George Floyd or Karl Marx, that’s about getting some. It’s about a barely repressed impulse to criminality that flips a switch of frenzy not in some here and there, but in hundreds and perhaps thousands simultaneously across a city. This city. Rochester, New York.
One store owner ran toward his building, firing warning shots into the air. Some others were beaten by two-by-fours when they tried to intercede.
A crowd cheered and hooted when a little boy threw a rock through a police car window.
It went on all night long, and past the light of Sunday dawn. Bleary-eyed reporters moving from scene to scene, posting pictures and trying to find words.
Apparently the curfew didn’t work.
And apparently something in the microculture of this city doesn’t work. This city, and the string of cities all across America where this weekend’s looting and arson delivered the final blow to countless small businesses barely staggering through the pandemic shutdown.
They did this on Joseph Avenue back in 1964.
And Joseph Avenue never came back.
It’s hard to see how some of the businesses and blocks ravaged by their neighbors last night will ever come back. The life’s work of good people has been wiped out by the rampaging of their community. And now you know why so many Rochester businesses peer out on the world from metal grates and gates and shutters, why they have bulletproof glass instead of covid Plexiglas.
And as has been the case for 50 years and more in this country, urban riot will bring struggling neighborhoods to their knees, killing the businesses that provided both merchandise and employment, community and pride.
This wasn’t an enemy who did this. It was us. It was Rochester. It was a social suicide.
And nothing will change, until we realize that the only change that counts is internal. We can’t blame them, we must fix us. Only a broken soul and spirit in countless breasts could countenance participation in a rampage like this.
And that is the issue Rochester faces.
The city doesn’t need to be mollified, it needs to be called to repentance.