‘I am overwhelmed’: Acts of kindness in the midst of rage in Ferguson

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

FERGUSON, Missouri (CNN) — Cathy and Jerome Jenkins have been running businesses in the St. Louis area for more than two decades. They tried selling neckties, then found success marketing a fabric chemical. But it’s the restaurant in downtown Ferguson, Cathy’s Kitchen, that is their love.

Monday night brought heartbreak. For so many reasons.

As a black family, the Jenkinses understood the rage that seethed and then exploded on the streets of Ferguson after a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in the death of black teenager Michael Brown.

Protesters spilled onto South Florissant Road and met a line of riot police just outside Cathy’s Kitchen. Things got ugly after police warned the crowds to get off the streets and then fired tear gas.

Many businesses were vandalized and looted. Some were razed by fire.

“I understand there is not a proper regard for African-American life in this country,” said Cathy Jenkins, shivering in the cold by the shattered window in her restaurant Tuesday.

If Wilson had been indicted, she is sure life would have moved on without blemish. Instead, she and her husband found themselves not being able to open for business.

She knew from a text she received that her eatery had been vandalized during the protests. But neither she nor her husband knew how they would find their beloved business. It was, after all, right next door to the Ferguson Police Department.

Life imitates art

Cathy’s Kitchen was a labor of love, inspired by a family vacation several years ago.

Jerome Jenkins was a huge fan of National Lampoon’s “Vacation,” the movie series starring Chevy Chase. So he copied the Griswolds, put his wife and three kids in an RV and drove from state to state. There’s a map in the restaurant of all the places they visited. Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Memphis.

In each place, Cathy Jenkins picked up local flavors and spices. The menu at Cathy’s Kitchen reflects some of the dishes she savored on that vacation.

The diner-style eatery has checkerboard floors and red walls. The two wall-mounted televisions are always set to The Cooking Channel and the Food Network. And the sound of soul is always playing on the stereo. Aretha, Stevie, Otis and Marvin. Customers sing along. That is, when they’re not busy eating.

There’s Memphis-style gumbo, New Orleans Po’ Boys and Chicago hot dogs. Cathy Jenkins likes to write the special of the day with chalk on the black-board table tops. Pulled pork or turkey with gravy. Drinks are $2.49. Free refills.

No wonder the place is packed at lunchtime.

On Monday, the Jenkinses closed early, around 3 p.m., when they saw protesters gathering across the street. They put up a sign on their front door: “Closed Until Further Notice!”

The following morning, Cathy’s Kitchen sat dark and silent. And broken.

Loyal customers, guardian angels

The Jenkinses knew their restaurant was not so badly damaged. They’d seen video of protesters locking arms in front of the place to protect it from vandals.

“I wish I knew who they were,” said Jerome Jenkins, “because I really would like to thank them.”

The Jenkinses planned to wake up early, rustle up relatives and be there by 8 to begin cleaning up. But by the time they arrived, people were already picking up the shards of glass from the window that was shattered.

They weren’t members of the National Guard. Or any federal disaster agency. They were her customers, loyal to her on a day of tragedy.

“I am overwhelmed,” she said.

But this was the Ferguson she knew. A Ferguson that was about diversity and community.

She said she had to believe the grand jury made the right decision.

But she and her husband were both deeply disappointed that some protesters turned violent and that authorities failed to protect their city.

“I thought when trouble erupted, the National Guard would be here. Then not to see a single military truck. … That’s troubling.”

Jerome Jenkins said authorities had four months to “get this right.” He didn’t understand why the decision was announced at night, why the police didn’t react right away and why the military was not sent in after a state of emergency had been declared many days before.

‘I hate what I have seen’

“I hate what I have seen on West Florissant,” he said, referring to the main thoroughfare that intersects with the road where Brown was shot dead. It was the scene of nearly two weeks of protests, some violent, in the wake of the killing.

After word spread that Wilson would not be indicted, protesters clashed with riot police in Ferguson. Many businesses had their doors and windows smashed in. Some were looted and set ablaze.

“Nobody was there to protect them,” Jerome Jenkins said. “To the African-American community, that is the greatest form of racism. You don’t protect and serve. You allow 20 to 30 criminals to come into our community and burn it down.”

He said the images of Ferguson mistakenly portray a community not interested in bettering itself, when instead rogue elements are responsible for the violence.

“A criminal is a criminal,” he said. “Poverty brings crime, and you will see that where you go in the world.”

Jenkins said he is not a man who would normally put his face in front of a television camera.

“But it’s worth telling the world, ‘Listen, it wasn’t us as residents who dropped the ball.’ ”

After the cleanup Tuesday, the Jenkinses hope to leave for Indiana, where they both grew up, to enjoy Thanksgiving with family and friends. And to heal.

They don’t know what will happen in the next few nights, whether there will be more trouble. They hope to hang the “open” sign on the door again very soon. Perhaps even as early as Monday.