Graffiti at the common entrance of the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Armenia in Chicago and the Oscar Isberian Rugs store

Chicago Riots Threaten Armenian Businesses, Honorary Armenian Consulate and Church

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CHICAGO – Protesting over the death of George Floyd deteriorated into looting in Chicago’s downtown and migrated into the suburbs over the weekend. Armenian-owned businesses and institutions were among those in danger and some suffered damage.

Damage at the Oscar Isberian Rugs store

Oscar Isberian Rugs has four branches. The one on West Kinzie Street is in the River North neighborhood, a center of arts, tourism and restaurants. Co-owner Oscar Tatosian is the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Armenia in Chicago, and the store and the consulate share a common entrance. He noted that it was near an intersection with LaSalle Street which was one of the main arteries into the business district. The police did not close off that bridge because it is an important two-way street allowing security and emergency vehicles to pass.

Damage at the Oscar Isberian Rugs store

Tatosian said of the crowd of looters on Saturday night May 30, “About midnight, they smashed windows, and smashed the door. They tried to get in but they couldn’t go any further. There were some display items they were able to steal. They graffitied the entire façade.” Tatosian added that the store, which also is the site of the honorary consulate, was well barricaded from the inside as always so no special precautions were needed.

Repairing the damage to the common entrance of the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Armenia in Chicago and the Oscar Isberian Rugs store

As the honorary consulate, Tatosian said he was in communication with the mayor’s office and ready to help any Armenian citizens who require assistance. So far, fortunately he said, there has been no need for this in connection with the riots.

Brindille, a Michelin-star restaurant co-owned by chef Carrie Nahabedian, is also in the River North district and also had been attacked by looters. Its custom-made window was shattered by a fire extinguisher. In an article in the Chicago Tribune, reporter John Kass related her reaction: “I just broke down. I was sickened by what happened to Mr. Floyd; who wasn’t? But then Brindille is attacked? I know it’s just property and just a building and just a restaurant. Thank God nobody was hurt. But it’s our restaurant, it’s my dream, and all the love and care we put into it, and they destroyed it because they could. It’s personal, an attack on everything we stand for.”

Nahabedian said, “Their actions had nothing to do with the man, Mr. Floyd, who should have been honored. Look around the country. In all the cities. This was an organized attack. What does Gucci have to do with the murder of Mr. Floyd? Or Versace? Nothing. Or any place that was destroyed.” She added, “We’ve lost something critical. We’ve lost our civility. And that’s what’s breaking my heart.”

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One of the local stores of Argo Tea, a company cofounded by Arsen Avakian in 2003, on Dearborn Street and Adams, had its windows smashed, not far from Chicago’s city hall.

There are Armenian jewelry stores in the downtown area of Chicago affected by the riots, but there is no word so far of whether any were damaged.

Armenian Church

Even Armenian churches were in danger of damage during the weekend. St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church of Chicago is not in the downtown but still is considered within the city limits of Chicago.

Church pastor Fr. Andreas Garabedian said that as Illinois was moving forward with reopening of businesses and churches, his church decided to welcome parishioners back for the divine liturgy for the first time since the COVID-10 lockdown on Sunday, May 31. After everything was concluded, he left but roughly an hour or an hour and a half later, he received a call from his secretary informing her that riots were taking place in the area.

Fr. Andreas Garabedian, pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church

Fr. Andreas said he immediately left his home and drove back. He said, “I am not armed but I personally believe that somebody should be at the church at that moment, and I am the first and last line of defense, especially with the police being as strained as they are. I put on my coat and stood in front of the church, not to attract attention but to show that it is not an abandoned building and that somebody is there.”

He said he could not tell the identity of passersby, because everyone was masked, but as he approached the church, he saw cars driving by with antifa [anti-fascist] flags, and people screaming out of their cars, death to the pigs, death to the cops. He noted that you have to be scared in such a situation because there could be crazy people present.

Two or three blocks away, there was a shopping center or strip mall area with stores like Target, Jewel-Osco (a supermarket), Five Below, Foot Locker, Chipotle and McDonalds. The police told Fr. Andreas that all those stores were smashed and hit. Hooligans threw bricks threw windows and the area had to be completely evacuated by the police.

Fr. Andreas and his neighbor, a Greek Orthodox restaurant owner, stood side by side and saw, Fr. Andreas said, “People were in the street. The police was in the street. People were yelling and screaming. Rioters were kicking cars.” Some people cursed Fr. Andreas, and others, he said, were spouting what he called misinformation and conspiracy theories. He stayed until 7 or 8 p.m. to make sure nothing will happen to the church and returned again in the morning.

He said that thankfully nothing happened to the church so far, and police were patrolling up and down the streets, while downtown Chicago is completely under lockdown. The National Guard had been called to help.

Fr. Andreas said that in general, “It was just a smorgasbord of people taking advantage of the situation. Even if people were not criminals, seeing the opportunity of a broken store window, they would run in and grab something.” In other words, this was not a protest any longer, but strictly rioting, he said. The police told him that they were overwhelmed and had to decide who to arrest and who to let go.

Fr. Andreas said that as a church, the Armenians believe all lives are precious regardless of names and even religion, and must be defended. He said that he personally thinks, and believes the Armenian Church would agree, that we want justice and we want the truth to come out. Anyone who is guilty, he said, should answer for it. In fact, he even spoke about the George Floyd situation in his Sunday sermon, and said he would protest and stand up for truth and justice if need be.

However, he concluded, “As the church, as a community, as Armenians who know what suffering and injustice is, yes, we cannot relate to the plight of African Americans, and the struggle they go through every day, and yes, we stand next to them and stand arm-in-arm, but what is happening is not about Black Lives Matter anymore. It is distracting from what really needs to be done.”

As far as St. Gregory the Illuminator Church itself, he said he realized, seeing what happened in Denver to the khachkar (see this Mirror article), that just being a church does not necessarily mean anything and the situation was far from over. He said, “I plan to be at the church regularly and show there is a presence here. I am a big guy. If somebody sees me, hopefully they will stay away – not that I can do anything, and I do not want to cause a ruckus or violence. The church is my home. Everyone who comes and prays here is family. Like any father or parents who defend their family, I will defend my church. Hopefully it won’t come to that though.”

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