Updated at 4:20 PM
A T-shirt vendor is leaving Cherry Hill Mall and vowing protest after management told him to stop selling shirts that depict police brutality.
Towan “Amir” Miller, the founder of the Teary Eyez line of T-shirts he makes in his basement and sells at the Cherry Hill and Philadelphia Mills malls, said the new shirt he had created — with the words “THIS HAS TO STOP!” and a stick-figure drawing of two police officers beating a man on the ground — is being censored by mall officials, and he’s been banned from selling them.
Though Cherry Hill Mall management later reversed their decision, now he and Tawanda Jones, founder of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters drill team, are urging a boycott of the mall, and organizing a protest in which demonstrators will come to the Mall in a few weeks all wearing the controversial shirts.
“We ain’t playing,” says Miller. “We’re going there by the thousands.”
He estimates that the shirts constituted about 80 percent of his business since he introduced it four days ago. Jones, saying she was taking one of the few public political stands of her life, was selling dozens of the $20 shirts from a table in her front yard.
By Wednesday, Miller decided to clear out of the Cherry Hill Mall altogether.
“People are saying, ‘No, don’t go,’” Miller said. “But I gotta make a sacrifice. If I’m gonna stay, I’m not going to be treated like that. They wouldn’t treat Nordstrom’s like that.”
Miller, 30, a Philadelphian with strong Camden connections who mentors and hires high-risk youth for his business, wasn’t surprised the mall had censored his merchandise. One Cherry Hill Mall employee had come by his kiosk to photograph the shirt after informing him that two police officers had complained about it. Another suggested the shirt might be acceptable with the drawing removed and the words remain.
“But then,” says Miller, “people would think: what has to stop??”
Tuesday afternoon, Miller received a voicemail from mall management:
I was just informed about the new T-shirts that you’re carrying and I do need to ask you to go ahead and remove those…you know we don’t want to stir up a lot of controversy within the common area…thanks so much, we appreciate it.
Wednesday evening, Cherry Hill Mall management issued a statement walking back its original decision:
Cherry Hill Mall does not condone any type of violence, but we do support our tenants’ rights to peacefully conduct their business. We made a hasty request that the merchant stop selling the specified t-shirts and as a result, have contacted the merchant to invite him to continue the sale of the t-shirts. We encourage peaceful unity in the region.”
But, angered and frustrated by the Mall’s initial decision, Miller dodged e-mails and phone calls from Mall personnel Wednesday as he debated what to do, particularly stung by a manager’s visit to his kiosk a few hours after the initial voicemail to tell him that the shirts were not being removed quickly enough.
“I really felt belittled how the manager spoke to me as a man,” he says. “I felt like an elementary school kid getting yelled at by the principal.”
The attempt to quash the shirt struck Jones and others as hypocritical, when a few doors down from Miller’s kiosk, Spencer’s — a gift shop known for racy merchandise — sells shirts with X-rated and sexist messages like “I’m not always a dick – Just kidding go f*** yourself,” an infant onesie that says, “Here for the bitches,” and politically charged apparel like a baseball cap with the message, “F***ing Hillary-ous” written across it.
“Why are they harassing this man,” asked Jones, “when other stores in the mall sell T-shirts with derogatory messages?”
Miller, who says he pays the Mall $2,000 a month in rent — except for the holiday shopping months of November and December when it shoots up to $9,000 — knew that the terms of his lease with the Cherry Hill Mall entitled them to prohibit him from selling any particular item to which they objected. He was also paid up for July, and realized that he stands to lose his $2,000 damage deposit for breaking the lease.
The entrepreneur created the Teary Eyez line in 2004 to represent “all life’s affairs…teary eyes when he or she is born into this world, teary eyes when you leave this world and every dramatic event in between that causes your eyes to tear.”
And many in the community are behind him. Camden resident Trudy Pegues bought a T-shirt from Jones this week because she saw it as a way of “everyone coming together.” For Rashaan Hornsby, who is raising five children and leading a youth football team in the city, the T-shirt controversy was “a sign that we as African-Americans need to own our own businesses; we need to own a little piece of America.”
By the time Miller had returned to Philadelphia Mills to close his remaining kiosk on Wednesday for the night, he said he realized that he stood to make more money selling the shirts on his own as the controversy spread. Malls typically have a contractual clause with kiosk operators that they take an extra percentage if monthly sales are unusually high; Cherry Hill and Philadelphia Mills are no exception.
Miller says the shirts “were not made to offend anybody,” but to raise awareness about police brutality against African-Americans; he says the shirt was admired and purchased by both black and white customers, one of whom was a police officer who said he appreciated what Miller was trying to do.
For Miller, who says he has been “pulled over by the police and put in the back of a cop car and had my whole car searched to be told my tail light was out,” the issue couldn’t be more urgent.
“With me fighting that battle in their mall and you got Cherry Hill police being offended by that, who’s to say they won’t be outside and pull me over for every little thing and give me a hard time?”
However, Miller later clarified to Billy Penn that he didn’t know whether any Cherry Hill Police officers complained to management. According to Cherry Hill Police Chief William Monaghan, “The Cherry Hill police department did not complain about Mr. Miller’s T-shirts. We fully support,” he said, “the right to free speech and freedom of expression.”
Miller will continue to operate the kiosk at Philadelphia Mills. He believes Cherry Hill will lose mall traffic in his absence, and that management there will regret its actions.
“They gotta pay for that,” he says. “They gotta suffer.”