CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The four Daughters of St. Paul who live and work on Charleston’s King Street closed up their books and media store like normal May 30.
They had spent a long day serving customers and watching marchers who moved down King Street to a city landmark called the Battery, taking part in protests against the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman.
Around 10 p.m., however, the sound of shouting alerted them that it was not going to be a normal night.
“During the day, the people coming by were peaceful. They chanted and marched and were very nice to our customers who were outside to pick up orders,” said Sister Margaret Kerry, local superior for the community and store manager. “What we heard at night was different. There was anger, screaming.”
The Pauline sisters were about to have front row seats to a riot.
On a night when violence tore through cities across the U.S. as a byproduct of the Floyd protests, Charleston was not immune. King Street and the surrounding area, chock-full of popular restaurants and shops, became the nucleus of a wave of looting, vandalism and arson. Rioters shattered windows, set fires, and robbed stores of everything from iPhones to clothing, athletic shoes and jewelry.
Kerry said the people came not in one big group, but in smaller, isolated clumps. Their ages ranged from teenagers to middle-aged adults. They were not the same people who had marched earlier in the day.
Sister Charlotte Robert Morrison was in her room on the building’s second floor when she heard the yelling, then the sound of glass breaking. Being in the middle of a riot had been the last thing on her mind when she arrived in Charleston in January to spend a few months helping at the store. She is usually based in Toronto and ended up staying in South Carolina longer than intended because COVID-19 halted travel between Canada and the United States.
Morrison went downstairs into the store, where she joined Sisters Lupe Hernandez and Gioan Linh Nguyen, who had come downstairs to see what was happening.
Then the looting started. Rioters hit the Sunglass Hut directly across the street but could only damage that glass and not break it. So they moved on to other shops up and down King Street, then started breaking restaurant windows. Sister Charlotte said people shattered the windows of Rack Room Shoes across from the Pauline store and within minutes shoe boxes were scattered in the street.
While most of the people were on foot, Morrison and Nguyen noted that some cars picked up looters with their arms full of merchandise, while other cars dropped people off.
The sisters stayed downstairs for a while, hoping no one would target their store. Miraculously, no one did.
In the meantime, they did what they could to document the situation. Nguyen saw people trying to take pictures of the sisters through the store windows. So, she and the other sisters took pictures of the people doing the rioting. They also wrote down the license plates of some of the looters’ cars and later shared them with police.
The chaos continued until about 2 a.m., then finally tapered off.
The morning of May 31, the sisters saw the destruction up and down King Street and realized how blessed they were to have escaped the night undamaged. Their hearts were heavy, however, to see what happened to neighbors whose businesses were just starting to recover after being closed because of the pandemic.
“I usually walk very early in the morning, and after this it was very discouraging just to walk down King Street and see what happened to all of our neighbors’ livelihoods,” Nguyen told The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston. “People work hard for what they have and this is what happens. All we can really do is pray for a healing of people’s hearts.”
They also saw the neighborhood come together. Volunteers showed up to help sweep up glass. Employees from Croghan’s, a jewelry store across the street, took time off from their own cleanup to help the sisters put plywood over their door and windows to protect them in case of another wave of violence.
Kerry is heartbroken for one woman who had just moved her jewelry store to King Street and had her entire inventory stolen. She also learned June 1 that a nearby restaurant that was set on fire will not reopen.
“This had nothing to do with Charleston and who we are and how we have acted in the past,” she said. “This violence was the opposite of what we stand for. We all know there has to be police reform, prison reform and justice reform, but this violence had nothing to do with any of those issues.”
The sisters are thankful that they are safe, and their store was not harmed. The Daughters of St. Paul, who operate a bookstore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, were not as lucky. Rioters broke nearly all of the windows in the sisters’ store and emptied their cash register. Interestingly, Kerry said, the only window that wasn’t smashed at the Chicago store was one that held a picture of Pope Francis.
Knauss is a reporter at The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.