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D.C. street vendors sang of their fears and wants. Why that matters.

One line of the song, which addresses a D.C. lawmaker by name, tells of vendors wanting to work without racist laws and police abuse

Street vendor Kahssay Ghebrebrhan holds up a picture of D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on Tuesday. (M. Felix Macaraeg)

The framed artwork on a wall of an office used by D.C. Council members who hold the power to decide the fate of street vendors did not go unnoticed as a group of vendors made their way through the Wilson Building on Tuesday, hoping to be heard.

A video posted on social media shows the vendors and activists sitting under and around that artwork, noting how the idyllic scene it depicts is not one that the council has done enough to make a reality.

In that rendered scene, a peaceful sidewalk is lined with food stands that are topped with stacks of fruit, surrounded by racks of dangling snacks and shaded by bright umbrellas.

“We see a beautiful picture, pero que paso?” says a man in the video, using a mix of English and Spanish. “You’re not supporting workers that are fighting, just asking for two simple things. One is to work without police harassment and the other one is to be able to work in peace. … You love our food and traditions, but you don’t love the working people.”

“He’s mocking us,” another person says. “He’s making fun of us.”

Everyone in the room then starts singing together in Spanish. But not just any song. In unison, they belt out the words of a song written for the occasion. Titled “The Street Vendor Song” and composed by the group Son La Lucha, the lyrics tell of vendors’ fears and wants. It also repeatedly addresses Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) by name:

Mr. Mendelson, listen to me. I come to demand a safe job.

Mr. Mendelson, please think about me. I want to work without fear or terror.

Mr. Mendelson, I just want to work. Without racist laws or police abuse.

That street vendors sang in a government building might not seem newsworthy. But that moment marked another way vendors and their supporters have tried to get council members to listen to them and decriminalize unlicensed street vending now, not later.

Earlier this month, the council unanimously approved a major overhaul of the city’s criminal code, and as part of that, the city plans to decriminalize street vending without a license. But that won’t take effect until 2025. And street vendors say they can’t wait that long. They have rent to pay now. They have bills to pay now. They have children to feed now.

The protest they staged at the Wilson Building this week was aimed at getting Mendelson to schedule a second hearing on two bills — the Street Vending Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2021 and the Sidewalk Vending Zones Amendment Act of 2021 — so that the council could vote on them before the year ends.

Workers with the nonprofit Beloved Community Incubator, which posted that singing video on its Instagram page, said they think they have enough support from council members to get the bills passed. But first they need the bills to come to a vote, and as of Wednesday, it seemed increasingly unlikely that would happen by the end of the year. The vendors and activists worry that if the bills are not passed this year, they will be pushed aside as the council focuses on the budget and other matters in 2023.

I sent a request for comment to Mendelson’s office Wednesday but was informed he was in hearings and unavailable to offer one.

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“We are forgotten people,” said Kahssay Ghebrebrhan, a longtime hot dog vendor. “We complain and complain, and nobody listens to us.”

He had been a vendor in the city for nearly three decades, but during the pandemic, when customers were sparse and safety was a concern, he let his license expire. Now he can’t get it renewed because of a requirement that says applicants can’t owe the city more than $100 in fines, fees or taxes. He said he was wrongly charged sales tax during the time he wasn’t working, and because he has been unemployed, he can’t pay the city that money.

“How can I pay without working?” he said. “I don’t have any job. I don’t have nothing. … I want to work. I want to get a license.”

A recent refrain from the vendors has been “Ni un año más” — Not one more year. And they are right to demand action now.

We have witnessed the pandemic leave people across the city without enough work or food, and we know that many of those people are part of immigrant communities. In a previous column, I told you about some of the desperate text messages received by an organization that started providing food to immigrants during the pandemic after noticing a growing need. “We’re living in an impossible situation, but us adults — we can cope,” read a message the group received from the mother of a 12-year-old. “I’m most worried about my girl. She asks me ‘how will we survive this?’ ”

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Many of the vendors are part of those communities that have been struggling, and they want to work. They want to pay their rent on time. They want to contribute to the local economy. It is past time that the city make it possible for them to do that, without fear of being harassed by authorities, taken to jail or fined money they don’t have for minor infractions.

“This is a really, really urgent economic, gender and racial justice issue,” said Geoff Gilbert, the legal director for Beloved Community Incubator.

Gilbert wrote a report about overhauling street vending in the city and recently obtained arrest data about vendors from the D.C. Sentencing Commission. That data revealed, he said, that between January 2018 and September 2022, more than 95 percent of people arrested for vending-related offenses, including vending without a license, were people of color. And among those vendors, about 80 percent were Black.

“If the council doesn’t pass the bills this year,” Gilbert said, “we’re left with the status quo, and the status quo is violent, carceral and racist.”

Gilbert participated in the singing Tuesday. In Spanish, the song rhymes, and that’s the version he and others sang. When they finished, and walked away from that framed artwork, someone noted they would be back.

“Tomorrow,” someone said, “and the day after, and the day after that.”

On Wednesday morning, under a still-dark sky, they arrived at the Wilson Building, hoping again to be heard.

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