The hustle outside the Republican National Convention
For black souvenir salespeople, politics are trumped by the need to make a dollar
There’s a lyric from Jay Z’s 2003 classic “December 4th” that says, “Hustlers, we don’t sleep, we rest one eye up.” Nowhere is this statement truer than at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 4th Street in downtown Cleveland.
About 25 vendors are set up along a two-block stretch just outside the security zone surrounding Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the Republican National Convention.
Many of them are black and they’re doing booming business by selling unofficial Donald Trump paraphernalia: T-shirts for $10, Make America Great Again hats for $20, buttons at $5 apiece. But everything is negotiable. Make an offer.
“Don’t be shy! Say hello to the Trump guy!” yelled a young man named Noah, wearing a dark blue hat he made with “RNC” stitched on it in white. He made the nine-hour trek from Columbia, South Carolina, to cash in on Trump mania. He can’t keep the “Hillary For Prison” shirts, perhaps the biggest fashion hit at the RNC, on his table.
The number of African-American vendors cashing in on the Republican presidential nominee’s craze is a stark contrast to the scant black representation inside Quicken Loans Arena. According to a poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, Trump’s appeal to black voters is virtually nonexistent, with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading him by a margin of 89 percent to 4 percent. And of the 2,472 delegates he’ll speak to Thursday night, only 18 are black, according to an early RNC estimate.
For Ashley and Rochelle, cousins from Detroit who were working for a cousin’s pin business, the racial shock is a two-way street.
“We got here the first day and it was crazy,” Rochelle said. “A lot of people bombarded us because we were the only black young females under 30 … They tried to take pictures of us. They tried to do interviews, all this stuff.”
“You were cool because you kept it about the merchandise,” Ashley said.
Every salesman or saleswoman is different. Some wait for customers to come to them. Others work the crowds, promising deals. But nobody wants to talk about how much money they’re making. And the one commandment shared along this strip is anonymity. Or as much as a person could have with news cameras and police officers at every corner. Ask them their name and chances are you’ll receive a first name. If it’s a real one. But never a last name. And even fewer agree to go on camera. Consider it part of the hustler’s code.
“I’ll talk to you all day, bruh,” Noah said, lighting a cigarette. He daps up several other vendors who walk by, some selling the same shirts he is, others selling water. Regardless, there’s a sense of camaraderie in the hustle. “But no video. That ain’t part of the game, feel me?”
“An interview is cool,” Ashley said. “Miss me with the video, though.”
It’s an all-cash business. And although they have permits to sell on the street, maybe not every dollar is strictly reported to the IRS. They want to be on the scene, but not really seen.
There’s no avoiding politics when the items they’re marketing promote the face and slogan of a man who could become the next president of the United States. But separating their personal beliefs from business isn’t difficult at all. They’re not in Cleveland to be persuaded on foreign policy or immigration laws. Not that they don’t care, but it won’t keep money in their pockets and food on their tables. This is a business trip.
“This is our living. This is what we do every day. I don’t care about Trump,” said Shy. She’s from Indiana, but has called Cleveland home for the past three months. If the people of Cleveland want it — as they did a month ago during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ basketball championship parade — she can push it. (Many of the vendors are still selling Cavs gear along with their Trump merchandise.) “But I know what I’m here for. I’m here to make money.”
Most don’t agree with everything Trump says and they don’t have much trust in the political process anyway.
Noah pulled on a cigarette as he folded shirts and advertised his self-made hats.
“But I do agree with his entrepreneurship. That’s the thing that sticks out most to me,” he said. “I’m not gon’ say if I’m voting for him or not, but, you know, his entrepreneurship, man. Me wanting to be an entrepreneur, man. It’s motivation to me.”
Plus, there’s always the most important edict.
“Everybody money green,” he said, laughing and blowing smoke in the air. “It don’t matter where it came from.”