By Ellen McGirt
June 27, 2017

Last week four black young men, three teens and one adult, were handcuffed and detained by an undercover unit of the U.S. Park Police for selling bottles of cold water without a permit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was an unusually hot day.

Local tour guide Tim Krepp took several pictures of the incident, and included them in a tweet. The images of the lanky youths, handcuffed and dejected, went viral. Krepp immediately framed the escalating debate: “My kids sell water and everyone smiles at them. These kids do it and get arrested. It IS racist,” he wrote on Twitter.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen sent the Park Police a public letter asking why it was necessary to handcuff the young men.

“I can’t help but think how the reaction by these same officers might have varied if different children had set up a quaint hand-painted lemonade stand on the same spot,” Allen wrote. “While still the same violation of selling a beverage without proper permits and licenses, I doubt we would have seen little girls in pigtails handcuffed on the ground.”

The handcuffs were for “safety of the officers and of the individuals,” Park Police spokeswoman Sgt. Anna Rose later said in a statement.

Though the teens were ultimately released with a warning, Allen was addressing the optics. There are plenty of kids selling wares in parks large and small across the city, he wrote, and “we should be making every effort to divert young people from the juvenile justice system and improve their relationships with law enforcement.”

We should also be making every effort to find them jobs.

After their original plan of getting summer gigs at Six Flags fell through, the soon-to-be Watergate 3 went into entrepreneurship mode. “We bought the water, like 15 cases. And a cooler and two totes,” one of the teens told The Washington Post. “We charged a dollar a bottle.”

But the informal economy, essential to the survival of so many otherwise talented people, is as much a hassle as it is a hustle for people of color. Often, it is dangerous. Occasionally, it is fatal. Alton Sterling was shot by police while selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, La. Eric Garner died by police chokehold, after being stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes.

I’ve been thinking about all the entrepreneurial black boys of summer as temp job season begins. And as we begin to debate, yet again, the merits of the minimum wage.

Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Maryland, and Oregon are set to raise their respective minimum wages on July 1 as part of ballot measures previously approved by voters.

The debate is always complex. Is it good or bad for low-income workers? Is it good or bad for people of color? Currently in the mix is a new analysis of the impact of the minimum wage increase in Seattle in 2015 and 2016. Though the move appears to have had little effect on restaurant workers, it may have lowered low-wage employees’ earnings by an average of $125 per month by encouraging employers to offer fewer hours. But an analysis of the Seattle study from the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, claims that bias in their methodology showed job losses when there really wasn’t any.

See? Complex.

Either way, as Fortune’s Grace Donnelly reports, the new, higher minimum wages are still not enough. “Even with these increases, the minimum wages remain at least 15% lower than the cost of living in each area, according to MIT’s living wage calculator, she writes.

But for two D.C. teens, it’s great news.

Nolan White, 16, and Devin Gatewood, 17 — two of the teens handcuffed for selling water — are now being trained to become iPhone technicians through a program called the H.O.P.E. project, which stands for “Helping Other People Excel.” Each year, about 150 people graduate from the program, which trains individuals in tech and support and helps place them in jobs. After he saw the photos of the incident online – thank you, Mr. Krepp – H.O.P.E. owner Raymond Bell contacted one of the mothers of the teens. As it turns out, they’d applied to the program last summer, but couldn’t get in.

So, for now, the debates on the minimum wage – and who gets to survive, much less thrive, in the informal economy – will continue. In the meantime, selling CDs, walking with Skittles, playing with toy guns, hawking loose cigarettes, and driving with a broken taillight remain, for some, activities punishable by extrajudicial execution.

When asked if he got into trouble when his mother picked him up from Park Police custody, Nolan White told The Washington Post, “She was happy that I was alive.”


You May Like