Street Vendors Sell Mementos With Meaning

By Nikita Stewart and Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Barack Obama's message of hope meets hustle at the Smithsonian Metro station.

Spencer Lynch and Kyle McAfee have a stand there featuring T-shirts that portray the president-elect as a character from the futuristic "Matrix" movies.

For McAfee, a street vendor for more than 30 years, Obama's historic ascension inspired him to ditch the tourist kitsch and raise the level of his merchandise offerings.

"People will hold on to this, and they will look at it 30 or 40 years from now," said McAfee, standing near his two tables staffed by Lynch, his partner of a dozen years.

As millions of expected visitors arrive, they will encounter 550 street peddlers who have been allotted prime downtown spots to hawk food and mementos. That's five times the number during President Bush's second inauguration in 2005.

The vendors -- overwhelmingly black and immigrant -- display a quiet racial pride along with their wares and American entrepreneurial spirit. They say pushing merchandise for the first U.S. president who looks like them has given them renewed purpose.

"The difference is that you're not just selling for profit. . . . I voted for the man," said McAfee, 54. "It gives you a positive feeling . . . as opposed to me selling an FBI shirt like a material item."

The merchandising potential of the U.S. president is being tapped at an unprecedented level.

It's street-corner capitalism, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University. "Instead of getting a job, they make a job for themselves. It's like they're bootlegging the White House."

Obama is aware of the retail appeal that his unprecedented victory has had among the close-knit community of self-employed street vendors. Shortly before Election Day, he told a local radio personality, "I'm glad I'm giving some brothers a job out there selling T-shirts."

Partners Siddiq Mumin and Omar Malik came from Los Angeles to set up shop at a busy intersection in Southeast Washington where suburban commuters rush past D.C. residents walking to the liquor store to buy money orders. The vendors have been there since December under four white tents with lights so they can sell well into the night.

"Yes We Did," reads the sign advertising their Obama stand. Rows of T-shirts are stacked high across multiple folding tables; warmup jackets with a presidential seal dangle from hangers overhead; dozens of clear plastic shoeboxes hold Obama buttons.

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