This past Thursday, a young Senegalese man died of a heart attack while running away from police. When we think of a young black man running away from police, we “know” that something illegal, possibly criminal happened. He is considered illegal before he’s considered anything else. While the police have the right to ask anyone for ID, it’s only ever black and Latino men who are asked. Now, let’s put this particular crime into context. The young man, Mame, was running with a group of other young black men who were carrying canvas blankets, slung over their shoulders filled with either bootleg DVDs or knock off luxury items such as handbags and sunglasses. Their crime? Selling these goods on the streets -they’re street vendors. They sell these things to make a living because no matter how long they’ve lived here their status is the same. And in Mame’s case, he’d lived in Spain for 14 years. In the 14 years he’d managed to make a life/living he wasn’t able to become a legal resident.
Here in Spain, these street vendors are called manteros, so named after the canvas blankets they use to sell their wares. These blankets have a string in the middle that connects the corners together so that when they spot the police, they can quickly lift the bag and run, ensuring that everything stays intact. When you see this, as I did nearly every day of the 8 years I lived in Lavapiés, it looked strange, like something out of a movie. But if you bothered to take a closer look at the faces of the manteros as they fly past you, the whole scene changes. Some of the manteros have their eyebrows creased in weariness, others in frustration. Sometimes a sly grin spreads across their faces as if the chase really was harmless bit of cheeky fun.
These chases happen so often that the true nature of what is taking place threatens to be lost: that people’s lives are at stake. Having seen this all these years I had almost forgotten
but Mame Mbaye´s death reminded me of the truth that people’s lives are at stake. The most vulnerable members of our community are being persecuted in the very process of trying to sustain their already precarious lives. They set off not only to make a better life for themselves but to become an important economic lifeline for their families. Immigrants who have traveled across deserts and overseas are being run down in the streets by cops on foot or motorbike for making a living. They arrive with nothing from countries devastated by war, economic collapse, or political instability. They arrive here only to continue their fight for survival yet also have to fight to be part of a society that ignores, dismisses, exploits and rejects them. In addition to these hunts, they are also subjected to regular ID checks and intermittent house raids. When arrested they’re taken to a local CIE, Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros, where they’re held for an indeterminate amount of time and whilst there, subjected to harassment and torture.
Spain is notorious for its selective law enforcement. In 2011, three international organizations cited Spain for racial profiling. Studies conducted by Amnesty International, CERD (UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) and the European Committee against Racism and Intolerance provided conclusive evidence of racial profiling in law enforcement and immigration control. They urged the Spanish government to take swift measures to end ethnic profiling, specifically requesting they modify existing regulations which permit such profiling. This Wednesday, 20 March, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent will release the conclusions of their study conducted this past February confirming the persistence of this “endemic racism”.
While Mame’s death is an alarming wake up call to the danger of Spain’s racist policies it is clear from the Spanish government’s insistence they´re doing nothing wrong that they will need more to be persuaded to give up these practices. Lavapies, the neighborhood where this happened, is one of the few communities in Madrid with a robust civil society filled with organizations fighting for justice. The community–already under siege from gentrification–is uniquely positioned to take up this cause and win.