On the morning of October 17, 1994, over 400 cops dressed in riot gear swept through 125th Street in Harlem, stoppedthe street vendors from setting up their businesses, and arrested 26.
The conflict was not new. Vendors had been selling their wares on 125th street since the 1960s and by the 1970s,store owners were complaining about unwanted competition and demanding that the city government remove the vendors.Police harassed vendors with summonses for traffic violations and blocking crosswalks. In an apparent attempt tocompromise with vendors, the city opened Mart 125, an indoor vendors’ market, in 1986.
But forceful removal didn’t come until the 1990s when this area of Harlem was designated one of a number of”empowerment zones” around the country. Members of the community were concerned that the money would not go to localbusiness but to subsidize multinationals coming in, like Disney, Old Navy, Starbucks and others. The 1994 policeraid, which forcibly displaced vendors into vacant lots 10 blocks away fed that fear. In 1998, the city served thelegal indoor vendors of Mart 125 with eviction notices. At the same time, Harlem Mall USA, which would house thearea’s first Disney and Gap stores, began its construction plans.
The conflict between large corporations and local communities continues today. For twelve years, the December 12thMovement, a grassroots black power organization, has led a march along 125th St. in Harlem to honor Malcolm X’sbirthday. Community leaders have asked that stores close during the afternoon, out of respect for the slain leader.But the new companies are not happy. Last year, for the first time, business owners complained that they werepressured into closing. The 125th Street Business Improvement District told neighborhood businesses that thedistrict did not support the shutdown.
This year, for the first time ever, the city has denied the December 12th Movement its permit to march.
- Omowale Clay, one of the co-chairs of the Malcolm X Celebration Committee and member of the December 12thMovement.
- Mamadou Chinyelu, author of ??Harlem Ain’t Nothin’ But A Third World Country: The Global Economy,Empowerment Zones and the Colonial Status of Africans in America (Mustard Seed Press, 1999).