The owner of Short North shoe boutique Sole Classics discusses the second chances rarely afforded black men and the way that broken windows have forced a long-overdue conversation
Dionte’ Johnson didn’t even have to answer his phone to know what had happened.
Johnson, owner of Short North shoe boutique Sole Classics, immediately recognized the 800 number when the call came through around 9:45 p.m. on Friday, May 29. He also knew that the protests that had overtaken Downtown beginning the previous day had continued to swell and move north, closer to his store. Along with the crowds and the police, he reasoned, there existed the potential for a more turbulent clash, as well as damage to the shop he’s owned for 11 years.
When Johnson arrived at Sole Classics, he was greeted by broken glass and an inventory that had been looted and ransacked. Hurt, frustrated and angry, he grabbed a broom and started to clean, determined to reopen the next day, to show strength amid the chaos.
But even as Johnson swept, a response started to build on social media, with Twitter users, in particular, questioning how a black-owned business located in a neighborhood lacking minority representation had become a target in the aftermath of a protest centered on racial justice.
“There’s just no way y’all looted sole classics… a BLACK OWNED business,” wrote @Feliesia24. “Out of ALL the racist businesses in The Short North they decided to hit Sole Classics!!! (A Black Owned Business),” wrote @marswuzhere_.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
It’s a frustration similar to the one Johnson expressed in an editorial he penned days later for Complex. “Why? Why did y'all attack my shop?” he wrote. “Me, the same guy who coaches in the city, runs neighborhood cleanups, school supply giveaways and workshops, the same guy who you shop with and always greets you with a smile and conversation?”
Owing in large part to these long-developed relationships, a crowdfunding campaign to cover repairs and lost inventory quickly exceeded its goal, with Johnson donating the extra funds to assist neighboring minority-owned businesses that sustained damage, including the Downtown location of BurgerIM.
Reached by phone on Monday, Johnson had largely made peace with events, at least as best he can, noting that a somewhat conflicted response is to be expected considering his standing as both a business owner and a black man who understands intimately the life-and-death importance of police accountability. “As a business owner, I don’t want my business to get broken into,” he said. “However, if my business has to get broken into for police reform to happen, so be it.”
It’s a sentiment Johnson further expounded on in black spray paint atop the plywood currently boarding up his shop, words that came to him spur-of-the-moment during a trip to the hardware store to purchase supplies. “This is on us!” the message reads. “For generations we have called the youth stupid, stripped funding from their programs, kicked them out of places and ignored them. … Don’t lock your doors tighter, open your hearts wider.”
To that end, Johnson said he has no plans to pursue charges against anyone who participated in the looting of his shop, actions that were captured on security cameras. Instead, once things have calmed, he hopes to set up private meetings with some of the offenders, beginning a dialogue he hopes could make this a moment of growth.
“It wasn’t in my heart [to pursue charges],” Johnson said. “As young men, sometimes we take advantage of opportunities, and, as black men, we don’t always get that second chance. … All right, you're 16 years old and now you have a criminal record that’s going to affect you the rest of your life, all for something that won’t affect me for the rest of mine. I don’t want it to happen again, but I also don’t want someone to lose their freedom because of it.”
Johnson also doesn’t fault the protest at-large, allowing that there were a handful in the large gathering who simply took advantage of the situation. At the same time, he said he understands the anger and the destructive urge some might have felt in that moment, noting that it has forced the larger community into a long-overdue, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue.
“If it had been a peaceful protest, where people were coming, sitting down and then going home to sleep … we’d be having a different conversation [as a society] right now,” he said. “Unfortunately we live in a world and a country where violence prevails over everything else. … We don’t clip the Disney stories. We clip the ones that bring a little fear, a little emotion. So if nobody throws a rock through a window, if nobody loots, we don’t have stories to report on. And if that happens, then maybe all of this falls away.”