By Jennifer 8. Lee
May 26, 2009
A group of Harlem protesters is calling for a boycott of the American
Apparel outlet on West 125th Street in Harlem, asserting that the
store failed to abide by a request made of Harlem merchants to close
for three hours last Tuesday, in observance of Malcolm X's May 19 birthday.
Malcolm X, the civil rights activist who was assassinated in Harlem
in 1965, at age 39, would have turned 84 this month. In his memory, a
group called the Malcolm X New Millennium Committee held a march and
requested that businesses along 125th Street, Central Harlem's main
thoroughfare, close from 1 to 4 p.m.
"It's really like a moment of silence," said Omowale Clay, a member
of the committee. The group makes a point of alerts businesses ahead
of time, he said. "We hand-delivered the letter."
The American Apparel store opened within the last year, and a
spokeswoman for the clothing chain, Emily Nerad, said that the
management of the store was not aware of the request. "We want to
apologize for any offense taken by marchers who thought American
Apparel was not in support of their rally for Malcolm X," she wrote
in an e-mail message. "Unfortunately, we did not receive advance
notice about closing. Once the marchers reached our store in Harlem,
the manager immediately closed the store."
The march, now in its 20th year, has drawn criticism in the past from
shop owners who complained that they felt pressured and harassed to
close. Store owners argued they don't necessarily close for other
holidays, like the Fourth of July or Christmas, and yet feel
intimidated by the marchers. Last week, as in some years past, some
store owners rolled down their gates as the marchers passed.
In 2001, out of frustration, the neighborhood business improvement
district requested a competing permit for the same time and place, as
an end-run against the march. The marchers sued, arguing they should
be given the permit as a matter of tradition, but lost their case in
federal court. The protesters marched anyway and managed to disrupt business.
The birthday committee is made up of a coalition of black activist
groups, including the December 12th Movement and the New Afrika
Liberation Front. The Malcolm X march has often been used as an
outlet to vocalize discontent over the gradual gentrification of
Harlem and 125th Street. Other businesses that have been targeted by
the protesters include Old Navy and the now-closed HMV, which were
both original tenants in the large Harlem USA development. The
militant tone of the birthday march has, at times, resulted arrests,
including seven in 1995.
On Saturday afternoon, a group of about 20 people gathered in front
of the Harlem American Apparel store waving red, black and green
flags, which represent black liberation, and chanting: "No
disrespect. For Malcolm X." The protesters also handed out fliers
drawing attention to the recent $5 million settlement between
American Apparel, which is known for its provocative ads, and Woody
Allen, who had sued the company for the unauthorized use of his his
image in an advertisement.
American Apparel, based in Los Angeles, also makes a point of
promoting their friendly labor policies, including hourly rates that
are at least twice the minimum wage, subsidized health care, meals
and free English lessons, as well as regular massages.
Ms. Narad noted, "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."