Looters burned her business, then a complete stranger stepped in to help

Jeff Eisenberg
·6 min read

LONG BEACH, Calif. — As she climbed into her car Monday at dawn to go see what was left of her business, Zahalea Anderson tried to remain optimistic.

“Maybe it won’t be that bad,” she told herself. “Maybe there will just be smoke damage.”

It was the morning after a peaceful Long Beach demonstration demanding justice for George Floyd devolved into violence and mayhem. Swarms of looters armed with hammers and crowbars used Sunday’s protest as an excuse to vandalize and ransack Long Beach retailers.

Anderson already suspected her martial arts school didn’t emerge unscathed because she had seen a neighboring business engulfed in flames while watching TV on Sunday night. Only her husband’s pleas kept her from ignoring the citywide 6 p.m. curfew and rushing to the site right then.

When Anderson arrived at the corner of 7th Street and Pine Avenue after a sleepless night, the destruction she found left her heartbroken. The fire had torn through an entire block before firefighters put it out, leveling a men’s clothing store and severely damaging Anderson’s martial arts school, a hair salon and several other minority-owned shops.

Anderson’s dojo reeked of smoke and ash. Firefighters told her that her roof could collapse at any moment. Not much inside appeared salvageable besides items of sentimental value — statues that once belonged to her parents, artwork her students had made or the charred remains of a mural that hung from the dojo’s back wall.

For Anderson, it was devastating to see her martial arts school covered in broken glass, soot and debris. Long Beach residents have come to the school to learn the art of self defense since Anderson’s father started offering jiu jitsu classes in his backyard more than a quarter century ago.

“I felt so hopeless seeing everything I’ve put my heart and soul into go up in flames,” Anderson said. “My head was down. A part of me said, ‘Yeah, it’s a wrap. It’s over.’ ”

Maybe it would have been, were it not for the generosity of a complete stranger halfway across the country.

A complete stranger steps in

Zahalea Anderson looks at the burned-out remains of her business in Long Beach. (Courtesy of Zahalea Anderson)
Zahalea Anderson looks at the burned-out remains of her business in Long Beach. (Courtesy of Zahalea Anderson)

Marie Hosep stumbled across Anderson’s story while scrolling through Twitter on Monday.

Someone on Hosep’s timeline had tweeted support for Anderson alongside screenshots of two Facebook posts that she had written that morning.

Anderson’s story reached Hosep at a time when the Michigan resident was still seething over the senseless death of Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. Hosep was eager to find a more meaningful way to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement than marching in a protest or posting her support to social media.

To Hosep, it didn’t matter that Anderson lived more than 2,000 miles away or that the two had never met. The African American business owner’s plight was the worthwhile cause that Hosep had been seeking.

“I figured why not help this person who has lost her business for no good reason?” Hosep said.

At first, Hosep searched in vain for a way to donate. When she found nothing, Hosep set up a GoFundMe page with Anderson as the sole beneficiary. Then Hosep spread the word via Twitter and Facebook.

By the time Hosep was able to reach Anderson to tell her about the GoFundMe, donations had already blown past the original $2,000 goal. As a result, Anderson was initially suspicious that this account set up by a complete stranger might be a scam.

“I was like, ‘Is this real?’ ” Anderson said. “I wasn’t sure whether to believe it. It seemed too good to be true.”

Eventually, Hosep was able to persuade Anderson that her intentions were pure and that the money was hers. Then the two women watched in joyful disbelief as the donations kept pouring in from as far away as England, Ireland and Italy. The total surpassed $40,000 before dinnertime on Monday. By the time Anderson awoke on Tuesday morning, it was over $100,000.

“I’ve never even said figures like that out of my mouth before,” Anderson said. “Again, I was like, ‘Is this real?’ I was trying to be calm, but in my mind, I couldn’t believe this was happening.”

‘I’m going to be the phoenix’

Zahalea Anderson stands in what remains of her self-defense studio in Long Beach. (Courtesy of Zahalea Anderson)
Zahalea Anderson stands in what remains of her self-defense studio in Long Beach. (Courtesy of Zahalea Anderson)

While the staggering show of support from the Long Beach community and beyond has eased some of Anderson’s pain, she is still conflicted about the destruction of her martial arts school.

On the one hand, Anderson strongly supports the fight to end police brutality against black people. The mother of two hopes that sometime in her children’s lifetime, “they can walk down the street and not feel that this might be their last breath.”

On the other hand, Anderson also argues that violent acts like arson and vandalism “mess up the whole entire message.” Says Anderson firmly, “I’m definitely a supporter of getting out the message that enough is enough. What I’m not for is people taking advantage of a serious situation to benefit themselves.”

Not yet 48 hours removed from the fire, Anderson said she has no idea who is responsible. She suspects the culprits may not be from Long Beach given that the burned-down businesses were each minority-owned and have a history of giving back to the community.

Anderson often puts at-risk kids “on scholarship” because their families can’t afford to pay for her jiu-jitsu classes. She checks in on those kids as often as she can to make sure they have enough to eat and somewhere safe to sleep at night.

Customers who have learned the art of self defense from Anderson often return to thank her for helping them thwart an attempted rape or robbery. A few have even credited her for helping to save their lives.

“That’s what drives me,” Anderson said. “For me, it’s not about the money.”

Anderson had hoped to relaunch her business as soon as California lifts COVID-19 restrictions prohibiting her from holding classes in-person. Now, she plans to hold in-person classes in the park while assessing her next move.

If her landlord allows it, she’d love to reopen in the same location at the corner of 7th and Pine. If not, she’ll look for another space in Long Beach. She has options now, thanks to the support of a complete stranger and the generosity of her community.

“Everyone keeps telling me I’m going to be the phoenix,” Anderson said. “I’m going to rise up out of these ashes. Now, I see the possibility.”