Small Business Strong: How the Providence Community Helped Clean Up in the Wake of Riots

In the wake of a riotous night, community volunteers flooded downtown to dress the city’s wounds

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There are so many things Karen Beebe could not have anticipated that Monday evening. She’d heard that recent protests could turn violent, and looting was possible, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. At 3am, she received a call from her alarm company; she used an app on her phone to access security cameras in her Downcity store, Modern Love. And from her home Beebe watched as strangers smashed a shop window, overturned racks, and ran off with a computer.

The “downtown riot” is now an infamous episode in the annals of 2020. Many businesses were hit, and some witnesses estimate as many as 100 participants in the wanton destruction. The mob forced its way into Providence Place Mall and set a police cruiser on fire. The riot sent shockwaves through Providence – and in that moment, it set a frightening precedent for the protests to come.

But then something remarkable happened: An army of volunteers showed up at the break of dawn to clean up the damage. Many came from the Downtown Improvement District (DID), wearing their recognizable yellow uniforms. Others were regular people, who had heard about the clash and wanted to help out. Only hours after police and rioters had descended the streets, residents from all walks of life were calmly sweeping glass from the pavement.

“When I arrived that morning, there were already so many volunteers that were there to assist in the cleanup,” Beebe recalls. “Words cannot describe how overwhelmed I was, and still am, with the outpouring of community support – and some of them I didn’t even know. It was a really beautiful movement of a community that came together to help one another.”

Lisa Newman Paratore, owner of the store Homestyle, had a similar experience: Early Tuesday morning, a friend called to express condolences for damage done to her shop. But by the time Paratore arrived downtown, the cleanup was already underway.

“There were already community members – some I recognized, some I did not – and really, it was an uplifting mood,” says Paratore. Some volunteers had brought donuts and bagels, individually wrapped to prevent contagion. Paratore knew she had to take precautions, moving valuable stock and important documents off-site, until the protests died down. But she didn’t want to remember the riot as a tragedy; in many ways, she felt the event had brought downtown entrepreneurs closer together.

“When we first opened, we were a really integrated community of businesses,” says Paratore, who opened Homestyle 15 years ago and jokingly calls herself an “OG” of downtown commerce. “We lost that feeling – the authentic, in-your-belly appreciation for each other. But when one of us is in distress, we’re all in distress.”

As plywood boards were erected to cover the riot’s scars, Paratore watched artists paint lively murals across their surfaces. Aside from her storied career as an interior designer, Paratore has a fine art background, and she personally added hearts to her storefront. “I wanted to send the message, ‘I’m not afraid.’”

The riots were traumatic, and the memory will fester for years. But the violence didn’t seem to hamper popular support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Westminster was plastered in signage; artwork and spray-painted slogans memorialized the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both recently killed by police and sparking protests around the globe for meaningful change. In the following days, waves of demonstrations flowed through downtown, all peaceful.

In an unsettling twist, Beebe learned about a fraudulent GoFundMe campaign set up for Modern Love and its sister store, Queen of Hearts. “We lost things, the destruction was terrible, and it breaks my heart because I have worked really hard,” says Beebe. “But I have my life, and I have my health. If people want to donate or support, they should be sure to support their communities of color and make donations to organizations of their choice for the movement.”