Maria Marín migrated to the United States two decades ago. The 47-year-old left her home of Veracruz, Mexico, seeking safety and better opportunities. Back then, her oldest daughter was only seven months old, she says. For the past 17 years, Marín has been a street vendor in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a predominantly working class and low income, immigrant, and Latinx neighborhood. Marín holds back tears as she speaks about the food and beverages she so carefully prepares to sell: tamales, arroz con leche, and champurrado. “I cook this food with all my love because it reminds me of my mother and my country. That’s why I keep fighting,” she says.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Marín, a mother of four and a breast cancer survivor, has only been selling food two or three times a week, both to protect her health and because her sales are down during the summer. Her oldest daughter is now 20 years old, attending college. “My experience has been hard. There have been times when 10 or eight cops come to where I’m selling. They have thrown my things and given me tickets between $1,500 and $2,000,” she says.
Marín is one of dozens of street vendors who led an action on Sept. 24, just a few steps from New York City Hall, demanding local officials pass Intro 1116, a bill that would expand the number of permits issued to street vendors and remove police from vending enforcement. Chants of “sí se puede” and other words of resistance echoed through the rally in at least five different languages. Street vendors held signs that read, “More churros. Less cops” and “Justice for street vendors.” Most wore yellow T-shirts and caps with the words “Vendor Power” printed on them, a symbol that they’re members of The Street Vendor Project, a grassroots organization with over 2,000 vendor members.
Intro 1116 was first introduced to the New York City Council in 2018 and would create 4,000 new mobile food vendor permits over the course of the next 10 years. Currently, the number of annual vending permits is limited to 5,100, a cap that has been in place since 1981. The bill would also establish a vending enforcement agency to eliminate the NYPD’s involvement in street vending regulation. Street vendors and allies at the rally hoped to pressure New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to move the bill to a vote.
At the action, Nabil Boussabou, 46-year-old food vendor from Morocco, took to the podium in the middle of the crowd. “When the police come to our carts, they treat us with a lot of disrespect, they never respect us, they never help us, and they never treat us fairly,” he says in Arabic as Mohamed Attia, executive director of The Street Vendor Project, translates Boussabou’s words to English. Boussabou, who’s the father of a 5-year-old child, doesn’t own his own food cart, but works for one selling breakfast and lunches in Manhattan’s financial district. Boussabou’s dream is to one day have his own food cart, but first the city has to lift the permit cap.
Boussabou said he had been unable to work since March, when the coronavirus pandemic began. He returned to work in early September.
“In the first week that I went back to work, the police gave me a $500 fine because I was standing too close to the crosswalk. They didn’t even measure the distance, they didn’t even know if I am in the right measurement or not,” he said, insisting he wasn’t violating any regulation. Even with a food vending permit, police can still ticket vendors if they’re allegedly violating permit rules. With fewer customers and fewer work hours, Boussabou’s income is only $300 a week, he said. “That is not even enough to pay for the ticket.” Just three months before Boussabou was ticketed, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had promised cops would stop harassing street vendors.
“Even during the pandemic, there were cops who were giving tickets to undocumented vendors in Corona Plaza in Queens. So not even at a time when people are at their most desperate, at their most vulnerable, when they’re trying to provide for their families, has there been an appreciation and a recognition and an understanding that vendors, they’re not committing crimes,” says Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director at The Street Vendor Project.
Community organizer, former public defender, and candidate for New York City Council Tiffany Cabán said we can’t divorce the issue of policing street vendors from the reckoning with police violence currently happening around the country.
“We have to rethink what public safety means, because all of these things that hurt our Black and brown and immigrant and low income, working New Yorkers, we are sold this idea that these laws are in place to keep us safe, when all they have done is made families more vulnerable, destabilizing entire communities,” she told the crowd. “It is so important that we lift the ban on permits because lives depend on it, because we have to remove police from situations, because we know our legal systems are not going to provide justice or relief, because we know that every single interaction with a police officer has the ability to be a violent one for our community members.”
Today, there are as many as 20,000 street vendors across New York City, according to The Street Vendor Project, including mobile food vendors and merchandise vendors. That number could be larger now, Kaufman-Gutierrez says, as the U.S. faces one of its most destructive economic recessions triggered by the pandemic, leaving millions of people jobless. Also, because the street vendor licensing application doesn’t require a Social Security number, many street vendors are undocumented.
While merchant vendors only need a license, food vendors must obtain both a license after taking a food handling course and a permit for the cart or vehicle where they’re transporting the food. “If you don’t have your permit, you have two options: you can take the risk to work without a permit, which means you’re subject to police harassment, subjected to getting fines from … six different city agencies, or your other alternative is to try to find a permit … in the underground market,” Kaufman-Gutierrez says. While food vending permits issued by the city typically only cost $200 every two years, Kaufman-Gutierrez says, black market permits can be priced much higher.
At the street vendor rally, Yu Xia Zhang, a food vendor from China who sells Chinese barbecue in Flushing, Queens, told the crowd she has to rent someone else’s permit, paying $20,000 every two years, because of the city’s refusal to issue her one. “This is already a huge burden. During the pandemic, this has made my situation even more difficult,” she says in Mandarin as an organizer translates to English. She’s been in the U.S. for 19 years and has worked as a street vendor for the past four. “We built our business step by step, with our own hands. Everyone here works hard every day,” she said.
New York City Councilmember Margaret Chin, the lead sponsor of Intro 1116, reminded the crowd that the bill has enough support to pass should the council finally decide to vote on it. This is also not the first time similar legislation has been introduced to the council.
Kaufman-Gutierrez also reflects on the city’s hypocrisy as it issues thousands of outdoor dining permits to New York City restaurants during the pandemic. The Street Vendor Project stands in solidarity with restaurants and restaurant workers, but they question why the city won’t grant similar permission to street vendors. “Restaurants … are in no way getting the support they need in order to survive the pandemic [or] support their employees, but there is a real disconnect and misopportunity and discrimination against street vendors that is currently happening,” she says. “[A streamline process for permits] exists, but it excludes street vendors, it ignores the fact and disregards the fact that vendors have been fighting for decades for the right to be recognized as small businesses, who work and operate from the streets and sidewalks.”
As she wipes tears from her face, Marín says she’s proud of her work. She’s been able to help pay for her daughter’s college as she continues to fight for the life she deeply longed for when she left the motherland. “Every time I go out to the streets, I pray to God for protection,” she says. “I need for all of us to unite. We want to work honestly and without fear.”