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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Atlanta Vendors Fight to Protect Economic Liberty

Larry Miller and Stanley Hambrick are proof positive of what entrepreneurship can achieve. For over 20 years, they’ve sold jerseys, shirts, hats, and snacks to excited Atlanta Braves fans. With very little start-up capital, these two men have built successful businesses from scratch. Hambrick put his kids through college. Miller bought a house and continues to provide for his children and grandchildren. But for the past seven months, Miller, Hambrick, and other vendors in Atlanta have been unable to provide for their families.

Rather like Ahab and the white whale, the city of Atlanta has been obsessed with running street vendors out of business. Back in 2009, Atlanta handed over all street vending to a multibillion-dollar corporation. With a city-backed monopoly, rent skyrocketed from $250 a year to almost $20,000 a year. Unable to afford these exorbitant rents, 16 vendors lost their jobs.

To fight back, Miller and Hambrick partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) and sued the city. Eighteen months later, vendors won a major victory when Atlanta’s vending monopoly was struck down in court. Judge Shawn LaGrua of the Fulton County Superior Court ruled that both the contract and the ordinance that created the monopoly were “void and without effect.”  

Fast forward to March of this year. It’s right before opening day for the Braves, one of the biggest days to sell sports merchandise. This year presents a unique opportunity, though: Atlanta is hosting the NCAA Final Four tournament.

But Mayor Kasim Reed launched an illegal crackdown on these entrepreneurs, jeopardizing the livelihoods of dozens of workers. The owner of a hot dog cart was even arrested after he refused to stop selling.

To correct this misconduct, Judge LaGrua issued not one, but two rulings making it clear that only the monopoly was struck down, not the vending law before it. She ordered the mayor to comply with the decision. Be it stubborn spite or some hidden motive, Mayor Reed has soldiered on, refusing to renew vendors’ permits.

Earlier this month, IJ learned that the city even installed iron fences around several prominent vending locations in the Five Points section of the city. This quite literal iron curtain makes it impossible to sell from these spots. It’s bitterly ironic that the city once known as the cradle of the civil rights movement has become so hostile to economic liberty.

But Hambrick, Miller, and the vendors of Atlanta have shown incredible resolve against this onslaught of lawlessness. Never wavering, they formed the Atlanta Vendors Association (AVA) to defend their rights. The AVA has marched on City Hall twice to rally support. Just yesterday, the AVA hired a mobile billboard truck to take to the streets and protest.

All these vendors want is for the crackdown to end so they can sell once again. Or as Miller put it, “I am not a criminal. I am not asking for a handout. All I ask is that Atlanta let me run my business in peace.”

As for the mayor, he’s looking at quite the interesting week ahead. Next Monday, Reed will face a contempt of court hearing for his illegal crackdown. Then on Tuesday, voters will decide whether to re-elect him as mayor. Stay tuned.

  • Bob is the Director of Media Relations for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.


  • Nick Sibilla is a writer for the Institute for Justice.