“Don't Worry About Us—Worry About What's Going On”: a Conversation With Union L.A. Owner Chris Gibbs

Cam Wolf

In the middle of my phone call with Union LA owner Chris Gibbs, he takes a step back. “We’re guilty of it in this conversation—if you go back and count how many times the word ‘looting’ came up, it’s coming up more than ‘police brutality’ or ‘protesters,’” says Gibbs. “I want that to be a reminder: every time we see someone looting, I want to refocus. Like: ‘Oh, shit, I got distracted for a minute. Police brutality, we gotta stop this.’”

Gibbs is in what might seem like a conflicted position. Stores in Union’s high-end streetwear category, like Round Two and Staple Pigeon, along with a host of luxury stores, were looted or directly affected. It would be difficult to blame him for worrying about his store. And “it would hurt” if Union were looted, he says. But he’s not really concerned about that—his solution is to attack the problem with more empathy and more compassion. Even as people and experts have debated the efficacy of looting and more destructive protests, Gibbs comes down firmly on one side of the issue. “I'm not personally against violent demonstrations at this point, because I'm frustrated,” he says. “Hurt people hurt.”

Now, he’s casting his vision forward. “I sit here and say, Have I done enough?” he asks. “[Police brutality is] still happening. And I'm going about my everyday waking up in the morning, making my coffee and getting my kids to school, and I'm going in and selling T-shirts.” What “doing enough” means, exactly, is what he’s working on now. In the aftermath of the protests, Gibbs and a group of store owners in Union’s neighborhood got on the phone to discuss next steps. Not how do we clean up? or how do we prevent further looting? but concrete ways to further help and stitch themselves into the community. “One beautiful thing that came out of it was, We are hurt, we are angry. What are we going to do about it? Let's get involved. Let's get more involved,” says Gibbs. “Let's not only come out every time an innocent black person gets killed by police and do one ‘I Can't Breathe’ T-shirt.”

As we’ve seen over the past week, silence is no longer tolerable. “We've reached the point in this timeline of humanity where you can't just turn a blind eye to the injustices that are going on and not be partaking in it,” says Gibbs.

GQ: What was the atmosphere like over the weekend?
Chris Gibbs: I'll give you my timeline as I saw it. Friday night there were protests. I didn't necessarily think those protests were going to get violent, for lack of a better term. And when they did, I thought, “Okay, I'm frustrated, too.” So I'm really not judging anybody and how they are expressing themselves, including the looters. I'm not judging people's frustration toward innocent black people dying and what's been years of nothing getting done about it. That's not where I'm pointing any of my frustration. The genesis of this whole thing is police brutality and that's where all my frustration is pointed at.

So I woke up Saturday morning and one of my staff was like, “Hey, I think we should board up the store. They were looting a lot of sneaker shops and young stores that cater to a similar customer that we cater to.” So I was like, “Oh”—to be honest, and I'm not proud of this, I was like—”I don't think it'll be that bad. We'll be fine.”

But I agreed to come in and we decided to meet at the store and talk about it. So I came to the store, and on Saturday the protest was happening at Pan Pacific Park, which is about five blocks away from my store. And that was what he was concerned about—that there's going to be spillover. So as I got there, Eddie [Cruz] who owns the Stussy shop and Undefeated, had already started to board up his stores. And he was like, “Hey, if you want, you can use my team to board your stores up.”

And I said yes, out of an abundance of caution. But they couldn't start with my store right away because they had to finish the others. And as the day grew on, as we got into the afternoon the mood of the city started to change. You could feel the energy. There wasn't one specific thing. It wasn't like while we were putting up the gates kids were rolling around with baseball bats and instigating. You could just feel a certain energy and mood in the city.

Yeah, I wonder: what is it like to be a shop owner in L.A. right now?
I think people are really sad, conflicted, frustrated. There's some really beautiful things coming out of this movement. There's also some really ugly things coming out. I do know people whose stores were decimated, and, first and foremost, they're just sad. This is where I'll speak for me, because I don’t know everyone's individual politics, but I think of myself as a business owner that's tried to be community-oriented and tried to stand up for the right things and tried to support activism and protest and help people who are doing the good work out there.

So if I got vandalized under the guise of what's going on here, it would hurt, because I don't think I'm the singular problem. When things like this happen, I want to ask what more I can do so that this doesn't happen. I have a very clear understanding of what's going on right now and why it's happening: it's because of a lot of injustices going on and has been going on for years and no one's doing anything about it. So, I would be hurt if [I were looted], but I'd also be like, ‘This is a wake up call for me to get more involved in something that is affecting me and my fellow man.’

I don't begrudge the people who are lashing out in anger. I just think we can't put the blame on the victims, and the victims in this situation are, first and foremost, the African-American community. I want to blame the people and the system that's causing this. And as a society, I think we can all agree, most of us—because there are some people out there who have devoted their lives to this cause—we've been too complacent. We've let this go on for too long.

I had a conversation with a group of business owners in our community and one beautiful thing that came out of it was, “We are hurt, we are angry. What are we going to do about it? Let's get involved. Let's get more involved.” No one, including people on the call whose stores were decimated, was talking about anything other than, “What can we do to cause positive change in our community so that this doesn't happen again?”

I love that, because in my mind that conversation could so easily devolve into immediate practical issues: How are we going to clean up, or What are we going to do to protect our stores? Can you tell me more about what came out of that phone call?
There were a couple store owners, maybe six or seven people on the call, and five of them had been directly looted. We had an hourlong phone call and not at any point did anybody express anger or frustration. We were trying to get to: what we can do? And one of the people on the call was a youth community organizer who was brought in to be like, “Let's just focus, because we sell T-shirts for a living—so how can we help with activism in the community?”

How did that call come together?
The Undefeated team instigated it and reached out to their community, and thankfully I'm part of that and reached out to a couple of other business owners who were affected. Everyone was like, “What can we do? Short term, mid term, long term?”

Short-term: Let's go feed the people that are cleaning up their stores today. One of the businesses was a restaurant, so they went, “Hey, I'll cook up some sandwiches and we'll go feed those people.”

Mid-term: How can we start to rebuild our community? Starting next week, what can we do to rebuild these relationships with our community, with people who potentially looted the store? What can we do to start the healing process as soon as possible?

And then long-term: How do we get behind these organizations that are like trying to stop police brutality and cause real change? And that's what the whole conversation was about.

Was there an idea for how that might happen?
Yes and no: we all went home with homework to do on getting to that. But one of them was, let's not only come out every time an innocent black person gets killed by police and do one “I Can't Breathe” T-shirt and then forget about it and go back to business. Let's make it a constant part of our businesses. We want to come out and make a statement and have that statement be continued.

One of those could be, Hey, let's, let's make sure that on a regular and ongoing basis, just as a baseline form of our business now, X amount of our revenue is being dedicated towards solving these issues. Now we got to find who we want to earmark as the person, organization, or organizations that are getting these proceeds.

That help doesn't only have to be money. We have a big Jordan launch coming at the end of the year, and we had already been pivoting to make sure that a really significant portion of our proceeds were going to help the community through the lens of COVID—something to help black businesses who've been adversely affected. And now obviously our target’s going to get bigger. We had already been talking about that for our Jordan launch and now we’re trying to figure out how we can make that a consistent thing.

The message you shared on Instagram about not blaming the looters was really meaningful in light of what’s happening. Why was it important for you to come out and make sure that you were really clear and direct about what your message is?
Because we’re even guilty of it in this conversation: if you go back and count how many times the word “looting” came up, it’s coming up more than “police brutality” or “protesters.” And I'm equally guilty. I really firmly believe that the conversation needs to be focused on ending police brutality. And I do think that, unfortunately, people are trying to distract from that to talk about looting and all the other things that are going on. So let's keep our eyes on that. That's the focus.

I don't really want to talk about looting if it's not very specifically through the lens of not blaming these people. You can turn to Fox News and hear a lot of blame going on, and they're not talking about police brutality at all. But I want to talk about that—I want that to be the focus. I want that to be a reminder. Every time we see someone looting, I just want to refocus, like: “Oh, shit, I got distracted for a minute, police brutality, we gotta stop this.” And that's what I was trying to say in that message.

I'm not a politician. I'm not an activist. I'm a humble store owner. A lot of people are reaching out—friends, family—and I feel the love and support and I thank everyone. But we're going to be okay—there are people who are dying in the streets right now. Even if the worst case happened, which is our store could get looted, we're going to be okay. Don't worry about us. Worry about what's going on.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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