Recently in New York City, two women selling churros were arrested and faced fines for vending in a transit station. The videos of their violent arrests went viral, shining a light on the ways that poverty, city bureaucracy, and law enforcement combine to make public spaces unsafe for Black and brown women as they attempt to pull themselves out of poverty through street vending. Now, Black, brown, women, and queer organizers are pushing back against state and transit police. Earlier this month, more than one thousand protesters gathered in a Brooklyn MTA station to respond to police violence against riders and vendors. This Friday, they will take their demands uptown, meeting at the Harriet Tubman memorial for the 2nd FTP Emergency Action Against NYPD and MTA. Activists are refusing “to tolerate the escalation of violence against poor people, against the Black, brown, Indigenous, undocumented, and trans folk on the streets and in our subways.”
For poor women, the process of acquiring a vendor permit in NYC is mired in so much red tape and expense that many turn to illegal vending to support themselves. A full-term vending license is valid for two years. At first glance, it seems a potential food vendor only needs to submit a $50 mobile food vending license and a $200 mobile food vending permit for each cart or food truck. But one look at the long checklist of documents needed to apply shows how the costs can stack up and exclude would-be vendors who lack the resources to obtain them. Without a valid government-issued photo ID, proof or an affidavit of your home address, a Tax Identification Number, proof of tax clearance, proof of payment for food, or a course certification, you can’t apply for a vendor permit. The required courses—either a Food Protection Certificate course or a Mobile Food Vending Protection Course—can cost up to $53 and require enrollees to devote between eight and 15 hours of time in order to pass. That’s valuable time that poor women might otherwise need to spend earning an income.
Even if vendors manage to meet all the requirements to apply, they soon realize that they’re likely to face a long wait for a license. Under a law established in1983 and updated in 1995, the number of full-term permits in effect in NYC is capped at 3,000 at any given time, with an additional 50 each allocated specifically for the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Unless the number of active permits dips below that number, no more full-term permits are issued. A seasonal license might seem like a potential short-term solution, but like the year-round permits, the demand exceeds the supply. As a result, eligible applicants must initially apply to be put on a waiting list and then wait to be called to officially apply.
The expense and time lag makes it is nearly impossible to get a vending permit, which leads many to obtain illegal permits by leasing or buying them from someone else. Permit resales and leases can cost up to $25,000 annually on the black market. There’s always a risk they might get caught, but for poor and working-class vendors, having a permit of any legal standing allows them to earn a day’s wage.
Street vending is business entry point for many women of color and immigrant women because they can capitalize on aspects of their cultural and domestic labor in which they are already experts. Nearly 22% of all food vendors with legal permits are women, and 56% of all ticketed violations are given to women, according to the Environmental Control Board violations database gathered by The Street Vendor Project.
In the United States, many women are the breadwinners for their families, so illegal vending is a risk some are willing to take to support themselves and care for others. But in doing so, they become vulnerable to legal penalties and the kind of harassment from law enforcement that has recently been captured on video. Because the New York City Administrative Code makes it “unlawful for any individual to act as a general vendor without having first obtained a license,” vendors often end up in contact with the police and other government officials working to regulate their businesses. Their challenges are exacerbated by violent interactions with law enforcement in public spaces, while police defend these interactions in the name of law and order.
Many respondents to the Vulnerable In Itself survey cited harassment by both government officials and law enforcement as the primary stress or danger they feel while vending. Approximately 44% of respondents reported having felt unsafe in their work. The most commonly cited source of fear was the threat of police or health inspectors, followed by robbery, verbal abuse, and contact with male vendors or strangers. Overall, 19 out of 50 women vendors referred explicitly to their interactions with law enforcement as a source of fear or stress.
The risks go beyond the initial encounters with law enforcement. Vendors who violate the permit regulations can find themselves in debt from fines and court fees. Punishment can range from massive fines to jail time, which lands them in the same criminal justice system that has destroyed the lives of people of color throughout the city. These penalties function in the lives of Black and brown women as punishment for doing business in public. While the city Comptroller’s Office recommends allowing partial or full waivers for state fines based on ability to pay, complete abolition of these fines would do more to radically change the lives of women caught in the colossal maze of food vending regulations.
Improvements to the system have been slow in coming. At the end of 2017, New York City Mayor Bill Di Blasio’s administration and the New York City Council failed to support policies that would end the 1983 vendor limit cap. In 2018, street vendors received 11,697 tickets for violations of the city’s laws and rules, including 711 written for mobile food vending without a permit.
At least one group is advocating for permanent change. The Street Vendor Project has more than 2,000 members who are working to create a vendors’ movement. The organizers from The Street Vendors Project believe that people in our society need to pay closer attention to the access barriers and the lack of livable wage opportunities available for poor women rather than punishing people in poverty. They recently launched The Elsa Fund, a GoFundMe page created to support Elsa, the vendor arrested at Broadway Junction, as she works to “recover the lost wages, cost of food, cost of tickets and carts.” According to the organizers, “she had 10 carts filled with fruits and churros confiscated by the police in the last 5 months.”
The Street Vendor Project’s efforts in the face of New York City’s resistance to systemic change suggest that we’re likely to see strategic but slow progress on these issues. Nonhierarchical organizing by Black, brown, and queer women, including those directly affected by the challenges of street vending, can help bring attention and urgency to economic and criminal justice crises like this one, which disproportionately affect women of color. Women street vendors’ battle for public space and the freedom to pursue their livelihoods is ultimately a fight for the dignity of self-determination. That’s why it is paramount to continue applying pressure to power both in the voting booth and in the streets until these laws, policies, practices are abolished.
Jamara Wakefield is a Black Queer arts and culture writer. They write for publication and stage. Follow them on Twitter.