Every year, on slain civil rights activist Malcolm X's birthday, businesses along 125th St. in Harlem close for three hours while a march takes place. Whether stores shut because they want to observe the day, or feel intimidated by the marchers, depends on whom you ask.
Either way, this year, neighborhood newcomer American Apparel says it didn't get the memo. It operated as normal on May 19, which would have been Malcolm X's 84th birthday, until the manager actually registered the marchers' presence, at which point the shop hurriedly closed.
A group of about 20 people who took offense at the California clothier's actions picketed the store this weekend, shouting "No disrespect for Malcolm X!" and calling for a boycott of the store. (In past years, when the birthday marchers encountered stores that had remained open, they have gathered outside and shouted for a boycott until the stores have rolled down their grates.) This weekend's protesters added one new twist: handing out leaflets mentioning American Apparel's recent $5 million settlement to Woody Allen, whose image was used without authorization on the company's billboards and online.
The march organizers, a coalition of community groups called the Malcolm X New Millennium Committee, characterize the 20-year tradition of store closings as a retail "moment of silence," says spokesman Omowale Clay. He also says the committee hand-delivered a letter to American Apparel, which has operated its West 125th St. location for less than one year.
125th St. has in the past few years been transformed from a shopping corridor with a panoply of pokey small businesses and 99c stores, to a shopping corridor with such totems of gentrification as an H&M, an Old Navy, and delicatessens that sell imported beer. But even though businesses line the road at street level, there is worrisomely low occupancy in most buildings above the first floor — partly because of property hoarding by landlords. Events like the Malcolm X birthday march have been a traditional flash point for conflicts over changes in the neighborhood that many longtime residents don't believe necessarily benefit them and their needs, and nor, do they feel, are they even intended to. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what a group of residents chanting "Whose street? Our street!" are driving at.
American Apparel, a west-coast clothing brand that largely still reflects the image of its white, hipster founder, and which named its zebra-print the "Afrika" print (with, as Dodai pointed out, the colonial 'k' — one can imagine what Malcolm X might have thought of that), made itself an easy target. It's easy to imagine Omowale Clay, or one of his fellow committee members, earnestly and probably a little self-righteously handing off their letter to one of the chain's typically disaffected staffers, only for that sales clerk to shrug and get back to talking about that really great party coming up where she was told there'll be coke. As quaint as getting exercised about gentrification seems, post-crash, now that all those glass-sided uptown condos are languishing unsold and the giant empty lot on the corner of E. 125th and Park Avenue festers like an opportunity that nobody has the money to take, it's equally strange to read American Apparel's profuse and sensitive-sounding apology, which gives the impression that the assassinated black leader's birthday was this totally awesome thing that they absolutely would have been down for, if only anyone had, like, told them:
"We want to apologize for any offense taken by marchers who thought American Apparel was not in support of their rally for Malcolm X...As you may know, every May 1 since 2003, our factory in Los Angeles is closed so that our employees can march in the May Day Rally for immigration rights, a cause that is both important to us and the L.A. community as a whole."
Image via Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture
Should Harlem Stores Close For Malcolm X's Birthday? [Cityroom]