He was running away from a mass raid on African street-traders to avoid arrest and the confiscation of his goods when he collapsed and died from a cardiac arrest.
The association of street-sellers, who are nearly all from Sénégal, say they want accountability for the demise of Mmame Mbage, 35, whilst police urge the public ‘not to dramatise’ the incident.
A spokesman for the street-sellers’ union, Malick Gueye – also 35 and from Sénégal – who has been living in Spain for 13 years says his friend Mmame, who died of a heart attack during a police swoop, is just one of the hundreds of Africans who ply their trade merely to survive.
Gueye says the association has been pushing for years for the decriminalisation of what is pejoratively termed ‘looky-looky men’.
“We’ve been denouncing bullying and hassle from police for years, meeting every Tuesday and fighting to raise awareness of what’s been happening,” Gueye says.
‘Looky-looky men’ get bad press in Spain because they ‘do not pay taxes’ on their cash sales in the street, although the vast majority earn far short of the €12,000 personal allowance, the minimum income required for paying taxes, meaning they are not eligible to do so anyway.
Also, anyone earning less than the minimum wage from their trade – currently €755 a month over 14 months a year, or €880 a month over 12 months – is not normally expected, by law, to pay Social Security at the present minimum of €275 a month in order to register as self-employed.
Other complaints about African street-sellers include how they suppose ‘unfair competition’ for legitimate retailers who do in fact pay taxes and Social Security, although in general, the low-quality wares of ‘looky-looky men’ fall far short of the standard of goods an average high-street retailer would sell.
Most members of Gueye’s association and their counterparts across the country work seven days a week trying to drum up sales, constantly watching over their shoulders, and once they have paid their basic survival costs, wire the surplus back to Sénégal to feed their families of origin.
In many African nations, societal norms dictate that young, fit men have a duty to provide for their families, even if this means making the perilous journey abroad to find work and send money home.
Whilst most members of the public agree that street-sellers never put pressure on them to buy – normally moving on at the slightest sign of lack of interest – numerous town councils, especially in tourist belts, will fine anyone caught buying from them.
People who fear being fined but who understand the men’s struggle sometimes give them donations instead, but the sellers are usually reluctant to take them, insisting they are young and fit enough to work and do not want to be ‘charity cases’.
“The man who died in Lavapiés is, before anything else, my friend of over 10 years and a member of our association,” Gueye said in an interview.
“We’ve been denouncing persecution and bullying since we formed in 2010, but the city council does nothing – the pressure has never let up.”
Despite Mmame’s having lived in Madrid for 13 years – like the association spokesman – he had never had any success in getting residence rights, Gueye said.
“Like him, street-sellers ply their trade because they have no choice, thanks to draconian immigration laws – they won’t give you a work permit, so you’re forced to trade cash in hand and under the radar. Mmame was condemned to this type of life.
“People sell in the street because of legal barriers which tell them they don’t have the right to work, that they’re ‘illegals’, and they don’t have any other way to survive.
“We want these laws changed and for street-selling to be decriminalised; at the moment, you can go to jail for up to two years for it, and we’ve been saying since 2010 that trying to survive is not a crime.
“There are numerous street-sellers in jail for trying to live; you shouldn’t have to be penalised for trying to survive, but poor people end up in prison every day.”
Riots overnight in the streets of Madrid are ‘fruit of people’s anger’, Gueye said, but ‘if the police hadn’t staged a siege’ on street-sellers, ‘this would never have happened’.
Overnight, members of the public hurled bottles and flower pots set fire to wheelie-bins and even to a branch of a bank.
Police insist Mmame’s death was ‘fortuitous’, as he died from a heart attack whilst running away from officers who had arrived to seize his goods and arrest him.
About 20 people were injured in the riots, half of whom were police officers, although nobody was seriously hurt.
Six people were arrested – all of whom are Spanish, and include a woman and a child.