Soho rioters hurt working-class people — not rich CEOs and celebs

Bonnie* is a retired teacher who now sells her art on Prince Street near her rent-stabilized apartment in Soho. She is not the kind of trust-funder, rich celebrity or wealthy CEO most people assume live in Soho.

During the third calamitous night of looting in Soho on Monday, Bonnie looked out her window to see a dozen men uniformly dressed in black camouflage burst into a luxury retailer on the ground floor of her building. A moment later, in a well-orchestrated maneuver, a $330,000 Rolls-Royce SUV pulled up and the looters piled their booty into the car, which then drove away with the spoils of war.

And war it was. Not a peaceful protest over the killing of a black man. Not anger at brutal cops. Not outrage at the social injustice endemic in our society.

It was a war zone in Soho, with trash cans burning and arsonists setting dumpsters ablaze, 20 feet from the home of an ordinary family. It was a violent riot with scores of people running amok, indiscriminately smashing the windows of high-end retailers as well as our local bodega. They broke into a mom-and-pop sandwich shop, stealing five bicycles the immigrant deliverymen use. As a result, these poor hardworking folk can no longer do their jobs.

The working- and middle-class people of Soho have had to remain in place to face the COVID virus. They have no second homes to retreat to. Now they are faced with the virus of organized criminal gangs.

And yet, on the social media site, many commenters had little sympathy for the people of Soho. We were branded as rich white elitists who cared nothing about suffering black people. They believe the urban myth hyped by The New York Times’ Style section that artists no longer live in Soho, that it is only the home of gazillionaires.

I know this myth to be false because for 25 years I have served as director of the SoHo Alliance, a volunteer community group founded in 1981 that looks out for the needs of Soho’s 8,000 residents.

Yes, some locals reside in lofts with a median sales price of $2.5 million. But many of my neighbors are pioneers living in rent-stabilized lofts or co-ops purchased for a pittance back in the day: artists, writers, filmmakers, playwrights, even the occasional fireman and electrician.

On a post entitled “Looting in SoHo,” in which my neighbors bemoaned the destruction of our streets, one woman spontaneously chimed in that Soho residents can “buy safety” and “count the justice system being on our side” with our “privileges.” When I exhorted my neighbors not to feed the troll, another woman on the same platform accused me of “anti-black racism.”

Little do they know about me or my neighbors.

Currently I am the super of a co-op building two artist friends and I purchased in 1981 with buy-out money after a prior landlord paid us to end our rent strike when he tried to evict us from our $300-a-month loft.

Politically, I was your typical 1960s political radical. I marched in countless protests. In 1968, police maced me at the Democratic Convention. From 1973 to 1991, I worked at The Loft, the legendary after-hours private dance party on Prince Street, whose members were 85 percent queer people of color.

So it galls me to hear strangers who stereotype, berate and belittle us, insinuating we are rich, white, privileged crypto-racists for calling 911 in desperation, requesting police protection from the organized criminal gangs who invaded our community.

Worse, some actually defended the looting, rationalizing it as payback for the injustices blacks have had to endure and forgetting the peaceful message of Martin Luther King Jr.

Looting will never foster social justice or redress past grievances. Looting only serves to selfishly benefit the looter and promote reactionary politics.

Although the demonstrations in the 1960s were massive, they were almost exclusively peaceful. That changed after the Chicago police riot, when a splinter group of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground, began a campaign of violence in October 1969.

Many of the right successfully used this minority’s actions to claim the entire anti-war cause was fueled by nothing but violent extremists. A month later, this enabled President Nixon to win the support of what he called the “Silent Majority,” who helped elect him in a landslide.

The same can happen in 2020. Although Trump is no Nixon, if this looting and violence continues, the president could use it to muster the current Silent Majority to his side and win in November.

Is that what these born-again radicals really want?

Sean Sweeney is the director of the SoHo Alliance. Bonnie requested that her last name be withheld from this piece.

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