Dionte' Johnson spray-painted a message on his Short North sneaker store's boarded-up front after the protests: “This is on us! For generations, we have called the youth stupid, stripped funding from their programs, kicked them out of places, and ignored them. What would you expect?? Don't shut your doors tighter. Open your hearts wider.”

Righteous tension filled the Downtown air on the night of May 29. Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency as the second night of anti-police brutality protests demanding justice for George Floyd erupted on the city streets.

Daylight’s peaceful demonstrations turned violent as the sun set: Distraught protestors chanted as police formed blockades. Tear gas painted the night sky a cloudy white and covered the ground in thick plumes. Crowds gathered and scattered over city blocks, fighting for themselves as much as they fought for Black lives, and rioters tore through the Short North. Among them was the group that broke into Dionte’ Johnson’s sneaker and streetwear boutique near East Hubbard Avenue and North High Street, Sole Classics.

Then Johnson received the call from ADT Security that broke his heart. 

He’s told the story plenty of times by now, reliving his mad dash out of his Gahanna home, the 10- to 15-minute drive Downtown that went by in a blur, the crowd he squeezed through to reach his busted storefront. Along his path to grab a broom in the back were shimmering glass shards, tattered boxes, overturned furniture and freshly emptied shelves and racks. 

With each sweep of the broom, the angered haze clouding Johnson’s periphery cleared to reveal the surrounding friends, family and strangers sweeping, picking up glass, returning shoes and boxes found a mile up the street, and vying for the chance to show him their footage of the looters.

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“I know the word love sounds cliche and I use it a lot, but that’s how I felt like,“ he says. “All that anger, all that animosity kind of really got swept away within the first five, 10 minutes because there were so many more people that cared than I even saw in the video of stealing.”

Johnson and his makeshift clean-up crew worked through the night, dwindling to a few cousins by morning. His community surrounded him and Sole Classics again the next day with an outpouring of love online, encouraging text messages, phone calls and brief drop-ins to the shop.

And why wouldn’t they? Of course they’d show out for the resurrection of the beloved Sole Classics and the man who’s broken bread with them, given back to the only community he’s called home and consistently shown them that their lives matter.

“When you think about role models, you think about people that are a little bit older than you,” says store manager and fellow businessman Dan Dover of Johnson. “He’s been someone that’s been a peer role model for all of us for a long time.”

***

By Saturday afternoon, Johnson had left a now-viral message to the greater Columbus community, scrawled in layered orange and black spray paint on the plywood panels boarding the shop. The block letters cried out: Make space for the city’s youth in your lives and businesses—“open your hearts wider” to them. 

The note from a business owner who’d suffered damages came as a pleasant surprise to many, but for Johnson it was a natural response. After reviewing videos of Sole Classics’ looting, he saw the perpetrators were teenagers, and softened. 

“That’s where my heart is, with these youth,” he says.

Johnson thought back to the young people he’s coached over 11 years on the football team at his alma mater, Eastmoor Academy High School, and the negativity he says they’re “force-fed.” He thought back to his experiences at Columbus Spanish Immersion Academy and to the days he spent with his mother, a social worker and lawyer, who helped kids his age at the Huckleberry House. He thought back to his own childhood growing up on the East Side, spending summertime evenings playing tag with his buddies until midnight and occasionally being stopped and searched by Columbus police. While he doesn’t condone stealing, he’s seen how the system treats youth, and he wanted his message to reflect that.

“It’s saying that I’m not about to contribute to a justice system that is looking to mark these kids at 16, 17, 18 [years old] with a record that’s gonna last them the rest of their life,” he says. “They’ll never be able to own a gun. They’ll never be able to vote. They’ll never be able to do XYZ, if I decide to go forward with charges.”

He never filed a police report and is unsure if his landlord plans to pursue legal action. But he will not press charges. All his experiences and interactions contributed to his decision and shaped him into the person he is, he says, but working with young football players at Eastmoor did so especially. “He really gets involved, and he’s not afraid to invest in and talk to the youth and get our opinion,” says Miicah Coleman, a former Eastmoor Warriors linebacker and mentee of Johnson’s. 

His community outreach only starts there. Since buying Sole Classics in 2010, Johnson has held yearly back-to-school drives for neighborhood kids and coordinated with local barbers to provide kids with free haircuts. He’s made Sole Classics interns out of former players and Omega Psi Phi fraters, and he leads the Look Ma’ No Hands organization dedicated to inspiring inner-city youth. Coleman says Johnson has given discounts to Eastmoor students for every A on their report cards and handed out free shoes to his players. He inspired Coleman to study business marketing at Ohio State University and bought him a digital camera for his photography work. 

And after the looting shook his world and he raised enough money through donations to repair Sole Classics, Johnson committed leftover funds to other Black business owners facing hardships. 

“The reason why I want to see more Black businesses survive and flourish and be successful is because we need more examples [of success] in our community beyond entertainment,” he says. “That’s not a talent that you could pass on to your kids and guarantee success, [like a business could].”

***

Barely two weeks after the break-in, Johnson and the crew at Sole Classics reopened the Short North boutique with plans to install a new, floor-to-ceiling front window. With both locations up and running again (there is a Dublin Sole Classics shop, too) they returned to business as usual, bringing streetwear back to the masses and hosting an Instagram Live giveaway via the business’ page.

Johnson—though he never wants to see what happened to Sole Classics happen to him or any other business owner again—hopes the events of the past few weeks mark the beginning of a long journey toward lasting change in Columbus. 

As “one of a handful of Black sneaker store owners in the entire world,” he wants to see more diversity in the business world, more people willing to break down barriers and welcome Black and brown businesses to the scene, and more bank CEOs creating programs for those business owners.

As a Black man and mentor in America, he wants to see police accountability, an end to “the code of protect the blue,” and police officers getting involved with the communities they’re meant to protect, repairing relationships that have been broken for generations.

“If this leads to police reform, if this leads to more funding for education, then it was a sacrifice just like you sacrifice people going off to war,” Johnson says. “Some people don’t come home from war, and this is a great sacrifice for a greater good. Now it’s just our job as a community to make sure businesses don’t fail because of it.”

Tatyana Tandanpolie is an intern for Columbus CEO.