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OPINION

The week the looters came

It’s up to us to show the best of America.

Stephen Mensah cleaned up his pharmacy in New York City after it was ransacked this week.
Stephen Mensah cleaned up his pharmacy in New York City after it was ransacked this week.JAMES ESTRIN/NYT

This has been a terrible week for our country.

Anyone who loves America has to be heartsick at the violence, mayhem, and pillaging that ignited in scores of cities nationwide. I’m not talking about the peaceful protests in which myriads of citizens voiced their outrage at the killing of George Floyd by a depraved Minneapolis cop while three other cops blithely watched. Those protests were laudable — the latest in a long chain of public demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins explicitly endorsed by the Bill of Rights, which shields “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

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But there was nothing admirable about the riots and the looting and the arson. What the criminals who wreaked so much havoc across America this past week did is abhorrent. Because of them, people are dead, businesses are destroyed, and neighborhoods — especially minority neighborhoods — are in ruins. Like all rioters, they were motivated by greed and a lust to ravage, not by any worthy purpose. It only compounds the obscenity of Floyd’s death that it was used by many as an excuse to justify the carnage.

This has been a frightening week for America.

It has been a frightening week for my family.

One of my children, only a few years out of high school, is the manager of a pharmacy on the West Coast, responsible for 50 employees and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, drugs, and equipment. My heart was in my throat last weekend as I read about the riots, looting, and arson in his city. I texted him, anxious to know if he was all right. Yes, he texted back; other pharmacies had been attacked during the night, one had been entirely burned out, but his store hadn’t suffered much damage.

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But the looters came in force that evening, using a pickup truck to smash their way through the loading dock entrance. Every part of the store was ransacked. Windows and plexiglass cases were shattered. Merchandise was taken from the sales floor and the stockroom. The worst of the damage was to the pharmacy department itself. Equipment was overturned, and scores of filled prescriptions were swiped. Closed-circuit video recorded some of the thieves methodically searching along the shelves for specific compounds and drugs. They attacked the high-tech safe in which the most strictly controlled narcotics, such as fentanyl and oxycodone, are locked up.

My son’s store was invaded five nights in a row. One night, thieves broke in through the roof. The next night, looters arrived in a van, the better to haul away the merchandise they were stealing.

The mayhem went way beyond theft. Cash registers were demolished, even though they’d been left with their drawers open to show that they were empty. Shelving units were ripped from the wall and toppled. A water main was broken, turning the pharmacy into a swamp of dissolved medicines, trampled containers, and overturned files.

As I write, the week’s violence seems to be diminishing. Though my son faces a steep climb before everything can be cleaned, repaired, or replaced, he was hoping to reopen the store by this weekend. Neither he nor his employees were physically hurt, he assured me. But many of them, like other Americans regrouping after the week’s wreckage, were demoralized by the pointless destruction to their workplace and community.

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There has been much commentary comparing this year’s turmoil to that in 1968. Some argue that things have gotten worse; others, that things are better. I can see merit on both sides. But on a personal level, the biggest difference for me is that I am experiencing 2020 as a parent, and my fears and worry for the country I love are entwined with fear and worry for the children I love.

In the 1960s, when I was growing up in Cleveland, it was my father whose business suffered the effects of lawlessness and disorder.

For years my dad had a furniture store on the corner of St. Clair Ave. and 103d St., in the heart of the city's Glenville district. On multiple occasions the store was broken into. In the middle of the night, my father would get a call from the alarm company telling him what had happened; he would have to get dressed and drive into the city to repair the damage as best he could. My siblings and I were too young to know that heading into Glenville in the middle of the night could be dangerous, but I can well imagine — reflecting on it as an adult — how anxious my mother must have been.

When deadly riots erupted in Cleveland in 1968, they were concentrated in Glenville. For days, the area was wracked by theft, vandalism, and arson. By the time it was safe enough for my father to venture back into the city, he expected to find his store a smoking ruin.

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Incredibly, he found it untouched. The pawn shop next door had been gutted, but Mark's Furniture & Appliance Co. had been left alone. My parents learned later that a group of tenants who lived in the apartments above the store had come down to the street and formed a human chain to deter looters. “Stay away from this place,” they told them. “It belongs to a good man.” That was an act of beautiful grace in the midst of ugly devastation and anarchy.

At a time of overflowing anger and bitterness, America desperately needs more acts of beauty and grace. It is so much easier to see the darkness now than to recognize the goodness of our neighbors. The cop who killed George Floyd showed us the worst of America. It’s up to everyone else to show the best.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, go to bitly.com/Arguable.