Five reflections on the death of Mame Mbaye
Last Thursday, on 15 March, a 35-year-old man from Senegal named Mame Mbaye died of a heart attack on the streets of Lavapiés, a multicultural neighbourhood of Madrid. Mbaye was an undocumented street vendor, a mantero, who had lived in Spain for over a decade. His friends say that he was pursued by police shortly before he collapsed lifeless on to the pavement in Lavapiés. The neighbourhood where he died was also home to Mbaye and many others of African origin. His death has provoked a great outpouring of solidarity and sadness – as well as riots in the immediate aftermath of his death, on Thursday night and into Friday morning. Mbaye’s death and, above all, the life he and many others lead in Spain, forces us to face some uncomfortable truths about lives that are lived out in Spanish cities – and what our cities can do to a life.
The facts: Last Friday a group of us – mostly from Lavapiés, mostly migrants – were trying to finish up a press release after Mame Mbaye’s death. With the buzz of social networks in the background, we debated on our Whats App group exactly what had happened and about whether it was necessary to wait until the facts around his death were clear, as if the competing versions of events were a fog that would eventually lift, revealing to us what had happened before or after this day – or on thousands of other days. But the media will say one thing and then the opposite. The Police will release a plethora of statements until the case is closed. So the death itself is the only constant, everything else can be re-written to suit the consumer. And so, busy with debating the facts, and the disputed narrative, we were at risk of losing sight of the background to Mame’s story: of a life ruled by fear, the absence of rest or serenity for those people that this city does not apparently have space for – although it plenty of space for others, affectionately welcoming speculators, multinationals and investment funds. We risked normalizing, once again, the reality for hundreds of men like Mame who stand for hours on the pavements, on the underground, watching people pass by. They watch the tourists, the citizens imbued with a full set of rights going to work or to see family, the marginalized, precarious people who worry about getting to the end of the month, but not about being detained or deported; the carefree young who sit outdoors in bars and cafés. Fear robs you of your best years, eats into your happiness; it makes you ill. To live in fear just for trying to survive, in a safe city like Madrid, is one of the worst possible expressions of inequality. And it’s shameful. These are the indisputable facts.
The damage: There are people who worry about this city. They fret about the damage caused by the ‘manteros’ (so-called for selling their wares laid out on blankets) who obscure the sophisticated streets of our city centre, where this living evidence of injustice, poverty and exclusion stains the Disneyland-style image of consumption and tourism that our neighbourhoods are increasingly coming to resemble. ‘It damages the image of Madrid’, say those who are cultivating this spectral city, enemy of its inhabitants. It hurts the major international firms that make bags, shoes and perfumes, counterfeit versions of which are sold by the manteros. These are the same companies that get the juicy added value of that lethal combination of intellectual property laws that indulge them and labour deregulation that favours them too. The manteros damage ‘business people’, we are told. Which business people? I wonder. Those who are left hanging on out of so many small businesses – who struggle with impossible rents and never-ending work days – have been forced to close? And then there are the demonstrators who express their anger and consternation by damaging property in the neighbourhood, say others. They muddied their legitimate sadness with this irrational, un-civic behaviour, say the defenders of common sense. But civic-minded behaviour is a luxury that serene people can afford. Those who feel the city is theirs, the colourful facades, the orderly cobbles, the offices of banks: they are all things that belong to and accept them, and not places that they are excluded from. For others, they are reminders that they are not wanted here, dirtying the dolled-up plazas, they want them gone, to be replaced by more ‘lucrative’ people.
Selling on the street. As people do have this bad and persistant habit of striving for their own and their fellows’ survival, hawking goods on the streets is a way of life that’s found all over the world. When there is no labour market that allows you to work, no capital with which to rent a shop, or to pay a license, when you don’t have the means to live off the land of produce things, when you are alone in the world and you need to better yourself in an economic system centred on the endless generation of profit, then you do what you have to do. And often, in many places, this means buying things and selling them for slightly more money in the street. This business of trying to make a living as best you can, is normal in countries cannot escape the reality of the atrocious inequality in our world. But in Spain, a country that works to maintain the fiction that everything is good, that poverty and exploitation don’t exist, just trying to make a living can land you in prison.
The community. The residents of Lavapiés, many of them African like Mame, flooded the neighbourhood in his memory, with thousands attending demonstrations over the last week. They condemn the situation faced by so many black people in the area, who do not possess the right to live without fear, to be able to earn a living without being permanently on edge, to inhabit streets where their sole act of existence can seem like an act of delinquency. These are the same communities that denounce illegal mass racist round-ups by police, who form solidarity networks and have, on occasion, expelled police from the neighbourhood. They are people who refuse to accept the version of their city that harasses and threatens their migrant neighbours. The real battles are to be had in these communities, in the streets where people join forces, rub shoulders, ask questions, and stand up for each other. Keeping solidarity alive in Madrid’s local neighbourhoods is the best possible response in a city where more and more people are treated as surplus to requirements.
The manteros. Among the residents are the manteros who organized the demonstrations to commemorate their friend. They have a trade union, an organized movement that is important not just to those that form part of it, but because it represents a kick back against the disorientation caused by the failure of traditional trade unions, the precarious nature of the manteros’ day-to-day existence, the atomization of struggles, the individualism that makes us fold up into ourselves. These grassroots movements led by those who have been dispossessed of their most basic rights – such as the manteros, or the domestic workers from Territorio Domestico, hotel cleaning staff from Las Kellys, or housing activists from the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) – are the ones who speak the most forcefully and clearly. They have understood that nobody will defend them on their behalf. They have the agency that many people seek for years after waking up from the myth of representation by politicians. Everyone should be listening to them.