Beyond the Politics of the Comfort Zone

Beyond the Politics of the Comfort Zone: What We Can Learn from the Positive Response of Business Owners to Property Destruction in Recent Uprisings

By Joe Keady and Sarahjane Blum

Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.

Ruhel Islam spoke these words to a friend upon learning that his restaurant, Gandhi Mahal, had caught fire on the second night of the Minneapolis uprising which occurred in response to the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Islam’s daughter shared his words the next morning on a Facebook post that continued, “Gandhi Mahal may have felt the flames last night, but our firey [sic] drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! Peace be with everyone.”

That post is one of the many moving statements of solidarity to come from small business owners whose property and livelihoods have been impacted by the displays of resistance that have spread across the US in recent weeks. These declarations represent a shift away from a pair of narratives about political protest that have long been considered accepted wisdom: namely, that property destruction delegitimizes whatever cause protesters are fighting for and that property destruction is a form of violence. Neither is true, but both have retained their rhetorical power because they help maintain what Ward Churchill, author of Pacifism as Pathology, has called “the politics of the comfort zone.” This form of social engagement that idealizes orderly protest, uses the language of “nonviolence” to create a landscape where the only protest tactics permissible are symbolic. It’s a seductive point of view, since it lets protesters position themselves as progressive while incurring no risk to their own personal security. Unfortunately, it also limits the ability of social movements to mount any true opposition to the power of the state.

That is the fundamental flaw in the logic of “peacefulness” at all costs, and the response to our current moment of uprising suggests that the politics of the comfort zone is beginning to lose its hold in the public imagination.

In an introduction to his recent interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ezra Klein of Vox noted that “There is now, as there always is amid protests, a loud call for the protesters to follow the principles of nonviolence. And that call, as Coates says, comes from people who neither practice nor heed nonviolence in their own lives.”

In a powerful op-ed published by Al Jazeera, The racists’ peace,” African Studies scholar Yannick Giovanni Marshall highlighted how hollow the concept of peaceful protest is: “to praise the peacefulness of a protest is to assert the right of those resisted to determine the ethics of resistance.”

In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight devoted entirely to unpacking racist police violence, host John Oliver gives the last word to an extended excerpt from a viral video by Black organizer and author Kimberly Jones:

“If the social contract is broken, why the fuck do I give a shit about burning the motherfucking Football Hall of Fame or burning a fucking Target. You broke the contract when you killed us in the streets and didn’t give a fuck. You broke the contract when for 400 years we played your game and built your wealth…and you came in and slaughtered us…As far as I’m concerned, they can burn this bitch to the ground and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

More than any time in recent memory, media narratives have shown that the state is the greatest purveyor of violence during uprisings and that calls to remain orderly while responding to state violence is what keeps communities imperiled. This narrative shift has begun because communities themselves are experiencing this moment differently.

The reaction of business owners who have been expressing strong solidarity with protests even as they suffer financial losses is one place that we see this shift. These reactions show how far discourse has come. We are overcoming the false binary that distinguishes peaceful from illegitimate protest, and deep-seated efforts to divide us. These reactions also acknowledge that any effective resistance to the immorality of racism and state-sanctioned violence has a cost, and that in many cases, this cost is worth paying. Together, they add up to more than the sum of their parts, both reflecting and modeling new perspectives on community responses to anti-Black police violence.

Mama Safia’s Kitchen is a block from Gandhi Mahal in Minneapolis. Owned by Safia Munye, a Somali immigrant, the restaurant was gutted on the night of May 29. The following morning, when she arrived to survey the damage and begin cleaning up, she told NPR (via her daughter, who acted as an interpreter), “I know that I’m not going to be able to come back from this economically, but what has happened to George’s life cannot be exchanged for all of this. I hope he gets justice.” One of her daughters explained in the same NPR segment, “The truth is, things like this happen when people feel powerless and something has to change.”

Munye’s perspective has been echoed by business owners across the country.

In Washington D.C., a number of businesses suffered property damage on the nights of May 30 and 31. Several prominent business owners took to Twitter to head-off the possibility that their difficulties would be used to distract from the need to address racism and police violence. Michelle Brown and Lela Singh, co-owners of the downtown cafe Teaism, tweeted “Before anyone puts a single word in our mouths. Black lives matter.” Dan Simons, co-owner of Founding Farmers restaurant, tweeted “The rage is justified. I would rather it be expressed peacefully, but if I need to ‘suffer’ some broken property, let’s be real, that isn’t suffering.” The following morning, Andy Shallal, owner of the cafe and restaurant chain Busboys and Poets, followed suit, writing “We understand the rage and we stand in complete and unequivocal solidarity with the protests.”

In Los Angeles, cannabis dispensary owner and rapper Berner, took to Instagram after his business was looted on the night of May 30. He told his 1.3 million followers:

“It’s extremely unfortunate what happened to our store tonight on Melrose, but as a human living in the world we’re living in today, I cannot expect anything less until justice is served. See, we can rebuild our store, but you cannot bring someone back to life. With that being said, we stand with what is going on right now in the world. A statement needed to be made. All I say is, I pray everyone stays safe and protects their family in a time like this. How can I worry about a store when there is so much more going on in the world right now? So much hate, so much anger, so much pain, and a lack of justice. Please take care of your families and stay safe.”

Berner employed six armed security guards at the store, but specifically told them to “stand down. … I’m not allowing anyone to die on my watch… all life matters. And money comes and goes…We sell weed. I’m not sure that insurance will honor our business, I haven’t even thought about it. I was focused on preserving life and instructing the armed guards to stand down and not to shoot.”

Dionte’ Johnson, owner of the sneaker boutique Sole Classics in Columbus, Ohio, published a moving essay on June 3 that tackled the evolution of his response to his business being looted the previous night. Johnson initially asked why his shop would be attacked, but his perspective began to shift when he realized that strangers had started to show up to help him. “I was humbled,” he writes, “and in that moment I was able to remove myself from the equation. This was not about me.” Finally, assessing the events that he saw happening across the country, he concluded “There was no way to foresee that this set of protests would not quickly become exhausted and end just like any other. This time, people across the nation would unify under one cause, and it is incredible.”

The number of affected businesses who have gone on record with the same conclusion—that this moment is bigger than them—is significant.

We have reached an inflection point in the history of anti-racist struggle in the US.  This grows out of both the unrelenting racist violence by the police nationwide, and the groundwork that has been laid over decades by activists who have continually refocused attention on the conditions that lead to moments of uprising. It has become a political cliché to turn to Martin Luther King’s statement that “a riot is the language of the unheard” whenever someone decries property damage, but it is relevant, nonetheless. We are only in this moment because of the work organizers and community leaders have done for generations to counter the arguments that reinforce the status quo and denounce and condemn property destruction.

MIGIZI Communications is one case study in this intergenerational work. MIGIZI is a non-profit that has been a staple of the Indigenous community in Minnesota since the mid-1970s. In 2019, MIGIZI opened their youth center in the same neighborhood as Gandhi Mahal and Safia’s Kitchen, but that space was completely gutted on the night of May 28. In a statement on its website, the organization wrote:

“We are working through many emotions, including disbelief and anger. We moved into this new home only last year, after raising more than $1.6 million to buy it and renovate it. But despite our sadness, we also have deep understanding about why Minneapolis has resorted to destructive protests, in the face of such overwhelming oppression faced by African-Americans, American Indian people and others.

This is a struggle that is about much more than police brutality. Sure, that’s a huge problem. To understand this pain, you must read the statement by leaders of other Minneapolis American Indian organizations about the long history of abuse by police in our community.”

This continual work of groups like MIGIZI to contextualize police killings within structural and historic oppression has moved the needle.  Even Target, an SNP 500 corporation headquartered in Minneapolis, has adopted the language of the Movement for Black Lives in the statement it put out after several of its stores were looted and burned in recent episodes of unrest. The statement notably lacks any condemnation of the actions of those who damaged Target stores, and instead begins, “We are a community in pain. That pain is not unique to the Twin Cities—it extends across America. The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We say their names and hold a too-long list of others in our hearts.”

Statements from publicly held corporations in support of popular social movements must be read as cynical and self-serving. Nonetheless, the words do matter. They show that Target, the eighth largest retailer in the country, calculated that speaking the language of “law and order,” or even using the outmoded dichotomy of legitimate and illegitimate forms of political opposition, is no longer what its customers want to hear.

Property destruction cannot, in this moment, be held up as a “distraction” from the fight against racism. Instead, it is increasingly recognized as an understandable and even necessary expression of the pain and anger caused by ongoing state-sanctioned, racist violence. This is a moment of courageous action and mutual and self-care on a massive scale. Not since perhaps the international uprisings of 1968, and perhaps, not even then, has there been such widespread solidarity expressed with non-symbolic forms of protest. It’s up to all of us to build on this moment, and not let the politics of the comfort zone once again take hold.


An Appendix: Solidarity from Unexpected Places

The status quo would have us believe that a business owner whose store was damaged during a protest should logically oppose the protests. What we have seen across a broad spectrum of businesses and geographic locations is exactly the opposite. The following is a list of businesses or business owners we have found that suffered losses during the aggressive street actions that spread across the United States in the days following George Floyd’s murder.

All Too Human, Boston, MA

“We hear you, we love you, and we stand with you.”

Ax-Man Surplus, St. Paul, MN

“This is just stuff, no comparison (to a person dying).”

BacoMercat & Bar Ama, Los Angeles, CA

“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”

Banzi Balloons, Indianapolis, IN

“This is going to take a lot of healing. A lot of time. But for this to get better, we have to start calling out the wrong in the world.”

Busboys & Poets, Washington, D.C.

“We understand the rage and we stand in complete and unequivocal solidarity with the protests.”

Central Camera, Chicago, IL

“I’m not angry at all. I’m upset that people didn’t stay with Black Lives Matter. That’s why this whole thing started to come about.”

Cookies, Los Angeles, CA

“As a human living in the world we’re living in today, I cannot expect anything less until justice is served.”

Copley Place mall, Boston, MA

“We stand united for racial equality and pray for the healing of our communities.”

Extreme Noise Records, Minneapolis, MN

“Please stay safe and take care of each other and your communities! #justiceforgeorgefloyd”

Founding Farmers, Washington, D.C.

“My team & I stand firmly with the message of the protest. The rage is justified.”

Frenchie, Boston, MA

“I think it’s great that so many people are willing to take a stand to help achieve equality for all.”

Gandhi Mahal, Minneapolis, MN

“Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers in jail.”

Go Get It Tobacco, St. Paul, MN

“I took one for the team. I don’t care. There are bigger things going on right now. That’s what we should be focused on.”

Guerrilla Tacos, Los Angeles, CA

“We are in a state of emergency and it’s not because of the looting or fires it is because black people are dying and no one is being held responsible and it is not changing.”

The Hub Bike Collective, Minneapolis, MN

“When we step outside we see the evidence of the destruction that is rooted in centuries of racial injustice and police violence. None of the physical destruction compares to the lives lost.”

Indochine Asian Dining Lounge, Seattle, WA

“On a personal level it’s very upsetting, but there are other priorities right now.”

Laced, Boston, MA

“We don’t take this material loss personally. Like our community we are hurt and outraged with the people across this nation.”

Levels, Minneapolis, MN

“My business burned down two days ago. You see the flames? It’s still going. That flame down in people’s soul? It’s still going. They want justice.”

Mama Safia’s Kitchen, Minneapolis, MN

“The truth is, things like this happen when people feel powerless and something has to change.”

Marc Jacobs, Los Angeles, CA

“Never let them convince you that broken glass or property is violence…property can be replaced, human lives cannot”

MIGIZI, Minneapolis, MN

“Despite our sadness, we also have deep understanding about why Minneapolis has resorted to destructive protests, in the face of such overwhelming oppression faced by African-Americans, American Indian people and others.”

Nordstrom

“These conversations aren’t easy, but they’ve never been more important. We’re grateful for the courage of our employees as they share their stories. We are proud to stand with them. We welcome your feedback as we work to make meaningful change together.”

Patchou Inc., Napolese & Patchou, IN

“We support those fighting for equal justice for all and vow to do our part to be better anti-racist allies.”

Petite Peso, Los Angeles, CA

“Our window can be replaced. George Floyd can’t.”

Round Two, Los Angeles, CA

“I can’t stress enough, our shops are not what you should be worried about.”

Seoul Taco, Chicago, IL

“Everything in my store will be replaceable, while lives are being senselessly lost, on a way too regular basis, is the way bigger issue.”

Silver in the City, Indianapolis, IN

“Let’s focus less on property damage and more on corruption and accountability.”

Sole Classics, Columbus, OH

“I will not be manipulated by the media to turn into a victim and cry, ‘Woe is me,’ but instead I will strike a match in solidarity with those who want change so much that they are willing to risk their freedom for it.”

Steve’s Guitars, Montreal, QC

“They’re guitars, not human lives.”

Target

“It’s hard to see now, but the day will come for healing—and our team will join our hearts, hands and resources in that journey.”

Teaism, Washington, D.C.

“We completely understand, and we’re thankful that nobody was hurt and no lives were lost.”

Urban Grape, Boston, MA

“Windows are not lives. Dreams deferred cause rage. Our window is broken but the roots of this are in 400 years of knees on necks.”

Written and compiled with assistance from Agency’s editorial team.


Joe Keady is a translator, writer, researcher, subtitler, and founding worker-owner of the Just Words Translation & Interpreting Cooperative. He is also an editor-at-large of Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism and Translation.

Sarahjane Blum lives in New York City and has been active in animal liberation and anti-authoritarian movements and prisoner support work since the 1990s.  

More from Joe Keady and Sarahjane Blum

Beyond the Politics of the Comfort Zone

Beyond the Politics of the Comfort Zone: What We Can Learn from...
Read More