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Counterfeit sidewalk vendors in Spain try to go legit

Mantero Pape Diop doing business in BarcelonaMantero Pape Diop doing business in Barcelona
Mantero Pape Diop doing business in BarcelonaPhotograph by Ian Mount

The police have finally moved on from his spot on Barcelona’s stately Passeig de Gràcia, so Pape Diop neatly resets his display of counterfeit Nike-branded FC Barcelona T-shirts on top of a sheet that’s gone gray from sidewalk grit. The sheet’s corners are laced with ropes, like an inverted parachute, so Diop can yank up the bundle with one deft movement when the cops inevitably return.

“Sometimes [the police] write you a fine. Sometimes you run away. Some are aggressive. They can kick you, curse at you,” says Diop, 36, who is from Dakar, Senegal. “Before, they used to catch us and take the things. If you had bad luck, they could catch you many times in the week.”

Diop is set up a half block from Antoní Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, and he’s hoping to catch a little collateral business from the more than 900,000 people who visit the modernist masterpiece each year. In local terms, Diop is engaged in top manta—selling knockoffs from the top of a sheet, or manta. Various cells of Senegalese sidewalk vendors are set up on the tourist-heavy avenue; each passes on police warnings to the next via mobile phone.

“Today I’ve only sold one shirt. Now up to April is very quiet. November is the worst. Maybe you make €150 a month,” Diop says. “Summer is much better. In August, you can make €50 a day.”

 

Diop estimates there are 250 Senegalese sidewalk vendors in Barcelona, but no one really knows how many manteros are here or in other European cities. It is clear, however, that in many parts of Europe still suffering from the continent’s economic crisis, top manta is the visible intersection of unemployment and immigration, and it’s often devolved into clashes between manteros and the police.

In August, a riot broke out in the beach town of Salou, 60 miles southwest of Barcelona, when a 50-year-old Senagalese construction worker, who became a mantero after losing his job, fell from his apartment balcony and died during a police bust. Three weeks later in Barcelona’s main square, Plaça Catalunya, a police inspection escalated into a clash with four officers injured by rock-throwing manteros.

To better manage the situation, Diop and several other manteros have formed a union. On Oct. 10, scores of people packed into Can Batlló, a cultural center set up by local residents in an abandoned textile factory, for the official launch of the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes de Barcelona.

I asked Diop how much a union can do for members when their work is, after all, technically illegal. And, for that matter, what does he think of the moral issue of selling counterfeit goods? Does it bother him that brand names and shop owners are pushing the government to drive him out of business?

“We want to challenge, to negotiate how we can take out the bad things, the things that have made our lives tough,” Diop says. “There are a lot of guys selling. Some like to sell and some don’t. But without a job they have to sell in the street. They can’t just stay at home with nothing.”

Maybe, he suggests, the city and the manteros and the brands could work something out. Maybe Nike or Adidas could offer some of them actual jobs. “If they gave us jobs, half would leave,” he says.

And regarding the whole right-or-wrong issue of counterfeiting? That doesn’t strike him as meaningful.

“They say they’re counterfeit. But for me counterfeiting doesn’t exist,” Diop says. “There are rich people, and there are poor people. Rich people who have the money buy the original. And poor people, when they buy for €15 to €20, they know, but they can only buy this. They have to let people live at their level.”

 

Apparel manufacturers don’t take such a nuanced economic view. A recent EU study found that the sale of fake clothing, shoes, and accessories costs EU manufacturers and retailors in those industries €26 billion a year—almost 10% of their revenue—and translates into the loss of up to 363,000 jobs in the sectors.

But Diop may have a point. Several studies have found that counterfeits could be good for the luxury brands they copy—or at least not entirely bad. In a study of 112 buyers of luxury bag knockoffs she performed for her Ph.D. dissertation, Renée Richardson Gosline, an assistant professor of marketing at MIT found that more than 40% bought the real thing within 30 months.

And while researching “JAILHOUSE FROCKS: Locating the public interest in policing counterfeit luxury fashion goods,” co-writer David Wall, a University of Durham professor of criminology, found that the economic damage caused by counterfeiting was one-fifth or less of estimates, and that counterfeiting could actually help luxury labels by raising brand awareness.

In fact, Wall and his co-author argue, there is little point in spending public money on busting those in the knockoff game. Rather, the money should go toward protecting customers from dangerous goods, and helping people like Diop.

“There is an even stronger argument for protecting environments at risk; individuals who are exploited to sell the goods; the counterfeiters’ workers who suffer poor local working conditions and lack normal occupational benefits,” Wall and his partner write.

There are signs that things are getting calmer on the streets of Barcelona. A man pushing a baby carriage stops and greets Diop warmly. Diop asks him if the woman with him is his wife, and he says no, she’s his sister.

“Ah, I see the resemblance,” Diop says. “If you shave off the beard…”

“Hers or mine?” the man asks mischievously.

After their laughter dissipates and the man leaves, Diop tells me he’s one of the police officers he deals with on a regular basis. “He’s my friend. I have a lot of policemen friends,” Diop says.

And, he says, the police have been calmer recently. It may have something to do with Barcelona’s new leftist mayor, Ada Colau, whose political coalition has announced plans to create a licensing program for sidewalk vendors. “I don’t know her—only on the television,” he says. “But from what I can see, she is tolerant and wants to work with everyone.”

But then 30 seconds later, a call comes in: A nearby top manta cell has spotted a pair of officers on mopeds coming down the street. Diop, the hub of his cell, closes his bundle and tells his two colleagues to do the same, yelling at one of them who’s trying to squeeze in a final handbag sale. Less than a minute later, the cops drive up, but with the mantas packed, there is little the officers can do but wag an admonishing finger at Diop and his crew.