What I Want People to Know About the Protests As a Black Business Owner Who Was Vandalized
Liz Polk, the co-owner of Speir Pilates in L.A. shares why the destruction of property shouldn't take away from the message behind—and importance of!—the cause.
I've been a fitness enthusiast for most of my life, but Pilates has always been my go-to. I've taken innumerable classes at several fitness studios across Los Angeles but found that there were many things the Pilates community could improve on. Most of all, I felt like there was a lot of body shaming going on, and the environment wasn't as welcoming and inclusive as it should be. I knew Pilates had something to offer to women of all different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. It just had to become more accessible and approachable.
So, together with my friend and Pilates instructor Andrea Speir, I decided to open a new Pilates studio—one where everyone felt like they belonged. And in 2016, Speir Pilates was born. Over the last four years, Speir Pilates has grown to become one of the premier Pilates studios in L.A. (Related: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Pilates)
But in the wake of the protests and demonstrations taking place around the country, our studio location in Santa Monica was looted and vandalized. The Friday after the killing of George Floyd, Andrea and I received a video from one of the studio's neighbors showing how our window had been broken and all of our retail had been stolen. Fortunately, our Pilates reformers (the large, and expensive Pilates equipment used in machine-based classes) were spared, but the situation was, well, devastating.
Making Peace with What Happened
No matter who you are or what the circumstances might be, when your business or home is burglarized during protests, rallies, or the like, you likely feel violated. I was no different. But as a Black woman and mother of three boys, I found myself at a crossroads. Sure, I felt this sense of unfairness. All the blood, sweat, and tears that went into creating and sustaining our business, and now what? Why us? But on the other hand, I understood—I understand—the pain and frustration that led to these violent acts. I too was (and am) heartbroken about what happened to Floyd and, frankly, worn out by all the years of injustice and segregation faced by my people. (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)
The exhaustion, the anger, and the long overdue and deserved desire to be heard is real—and, unfortunately, these shared sensations are not new. It's because of this, that I was able to quickly move on from thinking "why us?" to thinking about why this occurred in the first place. History has proven that very little happens in this country without a combination of peaceful protest and civil unrest. From my perspective, it's what triggers change. Our studio just happened to be caught in the middle.
Once I was able to make sense of the situation, I immediately called Andrea. I knew that she might have taken what happened to our studio personally. On the call, she conveyed how upset she was about the looting and didn't understand why they would target us and our studio. I told her that I was upset too, but that I believed the protests, lootings, and the targeting of our studio were all connected.
Protests, I explained, are deliberately planned to take place in areas where activists feel like awareness is most important. Similarly, vandalism during protests is often geared toward people and communities who are oppressors and/or privileged enough to be able to ignore the issues at hand—in this case, everything related to Black Lives Matter (BLM). While their intentions may vary, looters, IMO, are typically trying to lash out against capitalism, the police, and other forces that they see perpetuating racism.
I also explained that material things, such as the broken glass throughout the studio and stolen merchandise can be replaced. Floyd's life, however, cannot. The issue is much deeper than the simple act of destruction—and we can't let physical property damage take away from the importance of the cause. Andrea was quick to get on the same page, realizing and agreeing that we have to focus on why the violence was incited, not just the act of vandalism itself.
Over the next few days, Andrea and I had many insightful and, at times, difficult conversations about what had led to these country-wide protests. We discussed how the palpable pent-up anger and frustration wasn't just tied to police brutality and the killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It was the start of a war against the systemic racism that has plagued U.S. society for years—so long, in fact, that it's ingrained. And because it's so innately woven into, well, everything, it's near impossible for someone in the Black community to avoid it. Even I, a business owner and an executive in the legal department at Netflix, have to always be prepared for challenges I could face simply because of the color of my skin.(Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)
Dealing with the Aftermath
When Andrea and I arrived at our Santa Monica studio to address the damage the next morning, we found several people already cleaning up the shattered glass on the sidewalk. And shortly after word got out, we started to receive an outpouring of calls and emails from our clients, neighbors, and friends asking how they could help us get the studio back to its original state.
We were taken aback and so appreciative of the generous offers, but both Andrea and I knew that we couldn't accept the help. We knew that we would find a way to get our business back on its feet, but supporting the cause at hand was so much more important. So instead, we started redirecting people to donate, participate, and otherwise support causes related to the BLM movement. By doing so, we wanted our supporters and fellow business owners to understand that physical damage to property, regardless of the intention, isn't what matters to the big picture. (Related: "Talking About Race" Is a New Online Tool from the National Museum of African American History—Here's How to Use It)
Upon returning home after cleaning up, my 3-year-old son asked me where I had been; I told him I was cleaning up glass at work. When he asked "why," and I explained that someone had broken it, he immediately reasoned that that "someone" was a bad guy. I told him there was no way of telling if the person or people who did this were "bad." After all, I truly didn't know who had caused the damage. What I did know, however, was that they were likely frustrated—and for good reason.
It's not surprising that the recent looting and vandalizing has put business owners on edge. They know that if there's a protest nearby, it's possible their business could be targetted. As an extra precaution, some store owners have gone as far as boarding up their shops and removing valuable items. Even though they can't know for sure that their business will get hit, the fear is still there. (Related: Tools to Help You Uncover Implicit Bias—Plus, What That Actually Means)
I'm familiar with this fear. Growing up, I felt it every time my brother or my father left the house. It's the same fear that creeps into Black mothers' minds when their children walk out the door. It doesn't matter if they're headed to school or to work or just going to buy a pack of Skittles—there's a chance they may never come back.
As a Black woman and a business owner, I understand both perspectives, and I believe the fear of losing someone you love trumps the fear of losing something material. So if my business was just collateral in the fight towards equality? I'm okay with that.
As we move toward reopening both our Speir Pilates locations (both were originally shut down due to COVID-19), we hope to implement a renewed focus on our actions, especially as a Black co-owned wellness business, in the overall community. We want to continue actively learning and shifting how we as a business—and individuals—can contribute to real structural change in our city and our nation.
In the past, we've offered free Pilates certification training to people from underrepresented communities so that we can work toward diversifying Pilates. While these individuals typically come from a dance background or similar, our goal moving forward is to expand this initiative through sponsors and potential partnerships with dance companies. This way we can (hopefully!) serve more people and make the program more accessible. We are also working on finding ways in which we can support the BLM efforts on a daily basis to actively participate in fighting for the cause. (Related: A Petition for Skin Color-Inclusive Ballet Shoes Is Gathering Hundreds of Thousands of Signatures)
To my fellow business owners who're looking to do the same, know that every little thing counts. Sometimes the notion of "structural change" and "ending systemic racism", can feel insurmountable. It sounds like you won't see it in your lifetime. But anything that you do, big or small, has an impact on the issue. (Related: Team USA Swimmers Are Leading Workouts, Q&As, and More to Benefit Black Lives Matter)
Simple acts like making donations and volunteering count. On a larger scale, you can be more mindful of the people you choose to hire. You can work toward creating a more inclusive work environment or make sure a diverse group of people has access to your business and offerings. Every person's voice deserves to be heard. And if we don't allow space for that, change is near impossible.
In some ways, this long period of shutdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic combined with the recent energy surrounding the BLM protests, has given all business owners room to reopen with a renewed focus on our actions as a community. All you have to do is take the first step.