Through the Fire: Protests, Pain and Providence
Here’s a story to give you hope: A fire burned down Zahalea Anderson’s business, but internet allies stepped up with a viral call to action and six figures’ worth of donations.
It started with a picture of Zahalea Anderson on Facebook standing in the doorway of her burned out dojo. Above the image she wrote two words: “25 years …”.
“Every emotion ran through my veins,” she recalls of the night she saw on the local news that her family’s Long Beach, California, business, the Urban School of Self-Defense, had gone up in flames. The dojo was set afire on May 31 during protests and looting in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer.
“Neighbors who didn’t know me then, know me now because I was screaming at the TV. I was a mess. I couldn’t sleep.” The next day, as she stood surveying the terrible loss, her brother snapped the picture that Bobbi Cai — aka Bobbi Towns — saw. Cai can’t remember how she and Anderson first became Facebook friends, but the important thing was that they were connected.
“I said, ‘Dang, we have to help her because this is not cool,’” says Cai, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. She took a screenshot of the picture and a few others Anderson had posted, tagging Twitter friends with the retweetable message, “We have to help her.” Cai, who works as a camp counselor during the summer and teaches art, says, “I put myself in her shoes. I was really heartbroken for her.”
Anderson, a seventh-degree black belt, heads up the martial arts school founded more than two decades ago by her parents, Urban and RoseLee Showe. Several other businesses in her commercial complex also went up in flames.
A number of people in Cai’s Twitterverse embraced the challenge and tried to get in touch. But Anderson ignored her phone as she sought to retrieve what she could from the ashes. Smoke got in her hair and into her skin, but she stayed motivated.
“It is easy to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but if we do not rally behind our Black brothers and sisters in times of need then our words are EMPTY.
“What can we save?” she asked, darting in and out, hoping the roof would not collapse. The equipment and uniforms had to be trashed because they couldn’t be made sanitary, but she found gifts children had given her and articles written about the business. She salvaged artifacts that her parents had acquired during the years her father ran the shop.
There was even a treasured martial-arts-themed mural that was the backdrop of the business. It was painted on a large wooden board, half of which burned, half of which was salvageable. There’s a video of Anderson and friends easing the latter onto a larger wooden pallet with the care an EMT would give a delicate patient.
“I still haven’t been able to put it into words that I can explain,” says Urban Showe Sr., who now lives in Brooklyn. Of the business he and his wife founded having been destroyed and not yet rebuilt, he says, “It’s like my baby’s in a coma and I’m waiting for her to get out of it and heal.”
Anderson kept moving through the pain towards recovery. “I had to make peace with what I could save, and say goodbye to the things I couldn’t,” she recalled.
The fire came at a critical moment. With her business closed since March, she and some of her students were preparing for the third phase of Los Angeles County’s multiphase reopening, then still nearly two weeks out on June 12. That was the day gyms and dojos could reopen and welcome clients back.
As she worked, Anderson’s mother periodically warned her that her “phone was blowing up.” One of the people calling followed Cai, from Ohio, on Twitter. It was Marie Hosep, who lives near Detroit, Michigan, and had seen Cai’s plea to help Anderson rebuild. Having embraced the challenge, she was the first to get through after Anderson finally listened to her mother and answered her phone.
“I was trying to reach out … to see if there was a GoFundMe [campaign] that would benefit her business,” Hosep says. GoFundMe, an online platform, enables users to crowdsource contributions for a product, event or accidents and emergencies. Anderson’s situation certainly fit that last category.
Hosep, who is currently unemployed, finally got through and set up a GoFundMe campaign with Anderson as the sole beneficiary. Her call-to-action for the campaign was blunt:
“It is easy to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but if we do not rally behind our Black brothers and sisters in times of need then our words are EMPTY. 100% of this fundraiser will be going directly to Zahalea Anderson/Showe to buy a new dojo and reopen her business.”
The original goal was $10,000, but when that was quickly achieved, Hosep raised the goal. “We met $20,000 in 48 hours [so] I kept inching it up,” says Hosep, who had never started a GoFundMe for anyone else before. So far about 7,000 people have donated north of $160,000. Many donors, often anonymous, gave as little as five dollars. One anonymous donor contributed $25,000.
Anderson and Cai are Black and Hosep has Arabic lineage but looks white, which immediately made some suspicious that she might be in this to capitalize. Someone even got her email and asked, “What are you doing for the other businesses in Long Beach?” to which she replied: “I’m not even from there.” At the same time, she appreciated the opportunity for allyship: Working across the aisle, so to speak, in a way that was meaningful to Anderson without asking for anything back.
At first, Anderson was leery the gift might come with strings, but later grasped that it was meant to be free of attachments and expectations. “There was a conversation,” she says of connecting back with Hosep. “I gave gratitude and told her how much I appreciated this. I am very grateful and humbled.” She communicated similar sentiments to Cai via email.
Recently some of Anderson’s 120 students met temporarily outdoors on the Bluff, a public space in Long Beach, where outdoor yoga classes are often held. For the moment, she says, “the dojo lies in me.” Her decades of martial arts training have made her more disciplined, patient and willing to play the long game. “The old Zahalea,” she jokes, “would’ve went to jail and caught a case.”
It’s her intention that the new space be cozy and comfortable like the last one, but with more accessible parking. Her mother is concerned that its location not be too distant from the original. “Most of her students live in the neighborhood,” says RoseLee Slowe, “so location is going to matter … The community misses it. It’s more than just [a place to learn] self-defense, it’s a place to go, a positive environment for discipline, a way to stay focused and get well rounded.”
At least one part of the puzzle is in place: funding. “This,” Anderson said of the generous support that came from internet angels, “is giving me a fresh reset button.”