“People were just breaking into stores and walking in, loading their cars up,” said state Rep. LaShawn Ford as he stood among the rubble at the Washington Square Mall.
The Chicago shopping center at the corner of North Avenue and Cicero was struck by looters on Sunday.
“People did the looting because it was easy,” Ford said as he leveled criticism at what he said was the lack of a plan by city officials to protect the West and South sides of Chicago.
“They laid down their arms and walked away and left the West Side and the South Side open, wide open,” he said, referring to the lack of police on the scene that Sunday. The city, he said, “allowed for business on the West and South sides of Chicago to just be destroyed.”
Only a few feet away, the whirl of battery-powered screwdrivers could be heard as businesses boarded up. Inside the Ross Dress For Less store, workers were picking up after looters had their way.
As we spoke with Ford, 24 hours after the looting, a large contingent of Chicago police arrived at the shopping center. The state representative said it was a day late.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown strongly disputed Ford’s assertion that the police response to the South and West sides was inadequate.
Meanwhile in the parking lot, Anais Dayas of the nearby Grace and Peace Church showed up with friends to help clean up. “These are my neighbors. Like, I’m going to be here to support my people. And I’m going to be here to clean my community,” Dayas said.
It was through the eyes three generations of Fords -- 81-year-old Jessie, 16-year-old Tia and 46-year old Rep. LaShawn Ford -- that we viewed the damage at the mall, which with a grocery store, is an anchor in the community.
“The economic ability of the west side has been destroyed,” Ford said.
What Ford’s 81-year old mother saw brought tears to her eyes.
“It was touching. It was hurtin’ to me,” she said. “But our children haven’t learned. They don’t listen. We just destroyed the West side. We're going backwards."
Backward 52 years, the West Side went up in flames and rioters roamed the street often uncontested. Those riots followed the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Large swaths of Madison Street were destroyed, nine people died and over 1,000 were injured.
And then there was the widespread property damage.
“We lost a lot of things. We lost housing. We lost people. Stores. We just lost out,” remembered Jessie Ford.
Today much of Madison Street, as well as the West Side, remains either vacant or economically distressed, despite hardworking residents and earnest community efforts.
And the history of what happened here, for the younger generation, is not well understood.
“I know a little bit,” said 16-year-old Tai Ford when asked what she knew about the infamous chapter of Chicago history. “My grandmother told me a lot about it today, though, driving around, saying how hurt she was.”
Still hope can sometimes be found in something as simple as a broom and a dustpan.
The three Fords joined other volunteers in the clean-up of the B Fresh clothing store.
Glass shards were swept up, clothing hangers stacked to the side, debris dumped into plastic garbage bags. About a dozen people in all worked to clear the floor of a store that the owner says may not ever reopen.
Like so many of the businesses, past and present, the rioting, said Rep. Ford, has robbed a community yet again of far more than shoes and coats and groceries.
“It’s going to be very hard for our communities to rebound,” he said.
As bleak as things can be, and Jessie Ford will tell you if you are not a part of the solution, you remain part of the problem.
“I try not to feel hopeless. I do have faith. And this hopefully will bring something positive, out of it. Hopefully that our children will come together to understand how we are hurting each other."