Scott Lee Cohen greeted me in the showroom of his South Chicago pawnshop with an elbow bump and a Kimber .45 pistol strapped to his right hip.
Given our sometimes adversarial history, I found the elbow bump reassuring, the gun considerably less so, but I was there at Cohen’s invitation, unlike the looters who crashed through the same front door May 31.
Cohen, who a decade ago became the rare pawnbroker to run for public office, reached out to me this week with a story suggestion about history repeating itself.
Fifty-two years ago, a West Side pawnshop owned by Cohen’s father was looted and burned as the city convulsed in violence after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
A week ago Sunday, it was Cohen’s turn, with two of his shops wrecked in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death during the city’s worst civil disturbance in the half century since.
Many threads run through those events, but one is that all these years later the Cohen family still makes its living — a good one at that — from operating its business in minority communities.
The pawn business has always struck me as an exploitive line of work, although upon closer examination, I’ve also come to understand it survives because it provides a service that is much in demand — as a lender of last resort for the poor.
And that has given Cohen, who has spent a lifetime working in these stores with their minority customer base while hiring minority employees — both African-American and Latino — a closer relationship with the community than this downtown newspaper columnist.
That’s why I came to listen.
Cohen, you may recall, shocked everyone by winning the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2010, only to relinquish it days later amid various belated disclosures including that he had previously been arrested for domestic battery. An independent run for governor later that year went nowhere.
On Tuesday, Cohen gave assurances he has no intention of returning to politics, even as he complained about the police response to the break-ins at his pawnshops in the South Chicago neighborhood and in Calumet City.
Cohen has always thought of himself as a benevolent lender with altruistic motives. In addition to handing out free face masks and hand sanitizer, he says he’s given his customers extra months of interest-free leeway on their loans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My Dad did the same thing when he was in business in the 60’s and 70’s,” said Cohen, who was only two when his father’s pawnshop, West Side Discount Jewelry and Loan on 16th Street, went up in flames.
Cohen thinks he would have fared worse May 31 if not for his relationships.
He was at work that morning at his Calumet City pawnshop off River Oaks Drive when he got a call from a customer warning him looters were breaking into stores in the nearby mall and telling him he needed to get out of there.
Instead of leaving, Cohen said he and his employees grabbed guns to protect the store.
“I had shotguns. I had rifles,” he said. “Meanwhile, my kids are calling and screaming that I’ve got to leave. I’ve got to leave.”
Cohen said his alarm company called at 1 p.m. to alert him to a break-in at the Chicago store near 90th and Commercial, which is closed on Sundays.
Security camera video would later show two men kicking out the glass in the front door in seconds as dozens of others poured inside behind them.
“They were looking for jewelry, TVs, video game consoles, high end tools and cash. Everything else they left,” Cohen said.
Back at Calumet City, Cohen got another warning call, this time from someone he says he did not recognize.
“He said they’re going to come in, and they’re going to kill you. They’re going to come in whether you’re there or not,” Cohen said.
This time he heeded the message.
“The idea of hurting somebody or killing somebody over merchandise that I have insurance for, it didn’t make sense. So I left. I took a few things with me. My employees followed me home to make sure I got home OK,” Cohen said.
Soon after he left, the alarm company alerted him to a break-in there, too. In both cases, repeated calls to 911 went unanswered.
Cohen said insurance should cover most of his losses, but it won’t help the woman who came in the next day hoping to redeem her pawned computer, only to learn it had been stolen. Cohen can pay to replace the computer, but not the family photos she had stored on it.
I asked Cohen if he saw it coming.
“Did I know it was going to happen now? No. Yes, I saw it coming. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are staying the same.”
In that respect, it’s worse than 1968.