Kenosha Business Owners Try To Keep Customers Amid Possible Additional Unrest

Sep 21, 2020

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is expected to discuss its report soon on the Aug. 23 officer-involved shooting that severely wounded a Black man, Jacob Blake, outside a Kenosha home.

Among those waiting for the report are Kenosha business owners, many of whom have kept boards on their windows and entrance doors out of concern over the potential of more civil unrest, beyond what took place during the first nights after Blake was shot.

Some of the businesses also have a longer-term worry: how to appeal to customers who support the police, and those who support Blake.

The unrest of late August included the burning of several Kenosha businesses, both downtown near the Kenosha County courthouse and 15 blocks west in what's known as Uptown. But many establishments which remain intact, still have boards up. Community members have painted most of the boards with messages supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. 

That's the case at Jack Andrea, a gift shop at the edge of Uptown.

Co-owner David Andrea says the store has been in his Italian immigrant family for more than 100 years.  A recent painting on an outer wooden door refers to the fictional nation of Wakanda and its hero Black Panther. On another side of the store, a painted window board says "change gonna come." Andrea says he likes the paintings, but he admits some customers don't.

"There's some people that don't understand, and we got some pushback on that from customers, saying they won't shop here anymore. I did expect that, but that's OK. I mean, it's a free country and they're entitled to their opinions and things,” Andrea told WUWM.

A painted window board outside Jack Andrea, a gift shop in Kenosha, says "change gonna come."
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Andrea says he still supports the police, but he hasn't tried to mend fences with disgruntled shoppers.

"I didn't want to antagonize them. I didn't want to agitate them. They were very emotional. So, I thought, we just let it go and maybe over time we can all heal a bit,” Andrea said.

Andrea says it's possible the Black Lives Matter paintings will win him new customers, but he says he'd really prefer the boards come down and let more sunlight into the shop. He's waiting to see if there's further unrest in Kenosha.

Sir Claude's barbershop and beauty salon, in Kenosha's Uptown neighborhood.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

At Sir Claude's barbershop and beauty salon in Uptown, owner Claude Hamilton, who's Black, says the boards came off his windows last week, even though some of the recent fires were just down the street and the rubble is still there.

Hamilton says business is off. He says he doesn't condone the violent protests or Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey shooting Jacob Blake. Hamilton says he's served a diverse clientele during his "few years" in business and hopes word of mouth keeps him afloat.

"Right now, we just network with each other. Like, my clients that come in here, you know, they're all races and everything, and we talk, we have a rapport with each other. It's just that people are on edge, they don't know what to do. It's kind of shaky right now,” Hamilton said.

Across the street from Sir Claude's, Michael Johnson, a barber who's been in business for five years, hasn't put boards on his windows and doors, saying that during the unrest he was outside his shop several nights in a row.

Michael Johnson holds his daughter, JaZarie Aron Johnson, outside his barbershop, Fade City.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Johnson, who's Black, says his shop, Fade City, also has a diverse customer base, and that business over the last few weeks has been stable. Although, Johnson says he notices that his customers don't linger and go to other neighborhood stores anymore. He says he hopes to keep attracting business by doing his best to keep politics out of his place.

"You think about this. In certain business, certain conversations can't be held no way. So, whether it's right or wrong, I wouldn't know. I just know what works for me in here. We've had political conversations, where it got a little heated. So, that's what made me make that decision,” Johnson said.

Johnson says he's also worried there are more demonstrations to come in Kenosha, either regarding the police shooting case or a possible Kenosha trial for Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager accused of homicides in the killing of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum during the Blake protests.

That concern is also evident in downtown Kenosha at Franks Diner, which has been operating for nearly a century. Co-owner Kevin Ervin says customers are coming in, though he still has a board on his front window and boards are still on many other nearby establishments — making for what Ervin calls a dismal neighborhood atmosphere. 

Co-owner Kevin Ervin, outside Franks Diner, which has been in operation for nearly 100 years.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Ervin is white and so is his wife, but they have a Black son. Ervin says he supports Black Lives Matter, but not violent protests. He says his customer base is politically and racially diverse, and everyone is welcome.

But Ervin says his business's bottom line might not withstand more violence.

"It's the uncertainty of the unrest and what that's going to bring. Is that going to keep tourists away? Because Kenosha depends a lot on tourist dollars. So yeah, we really can't stand much more,” Ervin said.

Ervin says with COVID-19 he's been able to adjust his business, adding services like takeout and outdoor tables. He says he'd rather be able to focus on the pandemic than the protests.