WASHINGTON — Tony Blair had nowhere to sell his wares at Saturday’s Million Man March. But he came anyway.
With a table and boxes of T-shirts, buttons and key chains, Blair and his team of three from Chicago set up on the National Mall, about 800 yards from the Capitol steps, where Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and many others commemorated the 20th anniversary of the original march and spoke beneath the banner “Justice or Else.” (Farrakhan spearheaded the original march of Oct. 16, 1995, with the intention of inspiring African-American men to improve their lives and their communities.)
“I just came,” Blair said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But we came. It was about business, but it wasn’t about business, you know what I mean? Obviously, I want to sell my stuff. But it’s more about the moment. If I sell one item, that’s a good day for me in this place.”
Blair was one of countless T-shirt and paraphernalia merchants who bypassed the official permit process and established impromptu sales stations during the nearly five-hour event.
“No one said anything to me,” Roland Williamson of Washington, D.C., said. His table at 7th Street Northwest and Indiana Ave. Northwest was adorned with march-themed T-shirts, wristbands and posters. “I just got to work.”
Business was brisk for all vendors, including Blair and Williamson.
“I wish I had known you could just set up anywhere,” Kevin Mumphy said. He sold a variety of T-shirts at the first MMM, but had to operate about four blocks away, he said. Mumphy could not get a permit for space closer to the action. This year, he acquired a permit and was near 4th Street Northwest and Constitution Avenue, directly in line with the Capitol.
“This is a different kind of event for me,” Mumphy said. “I travel to events all over the country — have been for about 25 years. I don’t go to as many now as I used to, but none of them is like the Million Man March. I had to come here.
“You come here to make money. . . . But here, the business side just isn’t as important. It’s the importance of the moment — that is why I’m here. It’s not an ordinary day. Look at the people. It’s like a family reunion. We’re here for some very serious reasons — we want justice. We want police to protect us, not kill us. That’s why this day is important. That’s the real reason I’m here. Business is secondary.”
In 1995, black vendors complained they were unable to acquire permits to sell their products near the activities. Most of the permits were granted to non-blacks who previously had spaces closest to the Mall.
“I wasn’t happy with the setup 20 years ago,” Mumphy said. “I was a long way from all the people. But it didn’t take away from my experience because it was bigger than that. I met so many brothers who were in town on one accord. It was actually one of the more memorable days of my life, seeing black men so together and positive and uplifting.”
Many vendors shared his view — the MMM experience was about business, but not the money.
“Sure, I’m making money and probably going to sell out,” Michael Varrick of Falls Church, Virginia said. “People love having something to commemorate this day. But the money won’t be worth more than seeing my people out here for change, out here for justice. Like the minister (Farrakhan) said, we have to pass the torch to the young folks who will be the leaders of the future. To see these teenagers and 20-somethings here — that’s what makes this worthwhile for me.”
After the MMM, much of 7th Street Northwest north of Pennsylvania Avenue was packed with people scrounging for T-shirts, hats, refrigerator magnets, bracelets — anything with “Million Man March,” “Justice or Else” or “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on it.
“I can say almost for a fact that everyone who sold anything of quality had a good day; business was good,” Williamson said. “I can also almost say for a fact that this was the most rewarding event for any of us. You get the best of both worlds: customers in good spirits who want your stuff and to be a small part of something that’s really important. To be here — I’ve talked about it with other vendors. Being here, for this event, means everything.”