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The criminalization of unlicensed street vendors fuels state-sanctioned violence

Penalized for filling grocery gaps

On a busy street in the northwest area of Washington, D.C., 14th Street in Columbia Heights, vendors often sell food and other goods—even with the pandemic it’s normally packed with vendors and pedestrians on the weekends. Julio Cortez, a vendor in this busy cluster of stores and bustling metro station, is among them. His cart is stacked with fresh produce like sliced watermelon and mangoes and cooked food like taquitos, beef and chicken empanadas, and tamales.

Cortez said that since COVID-19 started, people had less money to spend and he had customers who preferred the more affordable prices of the food he was selling, which were often in the range of $3-$5.

“It’s not like a restaurant [where] you spend $15, $12, $20 for items,” Cortez said.

In between customers coming up to his cart, Cortez talked about what it’s like to get a permit to be a vendor in D.C., and he showed me a green food and beverage license. Obtaining a food vendor license in D.C. requires several steps, including registering your business, submitting an application, and scheduling an inspection of your vending unit. Cortez understands the need for food safety restrictions that vendors need to follow and said those rules are important for the health of vendors and customers.

“You don’t want to get people to get sick or things like that,” he said.

To complicate matters, many vendors are frequently arrested and brutalized by the police, targeting vendors regardless of whether or not they have their permits. For example, police in New York City charged a $500 fine to a vendor for being too close to the sidewalk, a significant amount of money for workers in an industry that primarily consists of immigrants who make low wages. In September 2021, a tweet of New York City employees destroying boxes of fresh produce that belonged to a street vendor named Diana Hernandez Cruz went viral. According to Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendors Association, the city justified “confiscating” Hernandez Cruz’s produce because she couldn’t prove ownership. While many rallied to donate money to Hernandez Cruz to make up for the food the city destroyed, vendors like her still operate under a dual threat from the pandemic and city raids.

Many street vendors are people of color, and when police are the ones regulating their industry—rather than unarmed city officials like health inspectors—more frequent interaction with police increases the chance those vendors will suffer police violence, or worse. It’s not that food safety isn’t important. It’s that criminalizing food vendors for not having a permit doesn’t equate to food safety—if it did, police would be the ones regularly inspecting restaurants instead of city health inspectors.

The law as it currently stands created a situation where Hernandez Cruz’s goods were treated as illegal and confiscated by the city because she didn’t have a permit proving ownership—in other words, what Hernandez Cruz was doing was considered illegal over the lack of paperwork, not because she was committing harm. It didn’t matter to the city that Hernandez Cruz was a loved and supported member of her community providing a critical service. And unfortunately, this is the norm that street vendors have to operate under.

“It just happens that this one incident went viral, but it’s not an isolated incident,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said. “It’s not the first time, and it unfortunately won’t be the last time until there’s legislative change.”

Permits are part of the problem but not the only solution

Undocumented people have few options in which they can work to support themselves—working as street vendors is one of the ways they can do so and meet a critical need, especially in underserved communities. The history of targeting street vendors selling fresh food is rooted in the struggles many workers—particularly immigrants—faced in attempting to participate in a more informal economy, such as job discrimination or a lack of documentation. While there’s a need to ensure that vendors store, prepare, and sell food safely, what organizers take issue with isn’t the need to regulate food systems to protect public health, but the use of criminalization to do so. Instead, they propose updating permit rules and regulations to reflect how food vendors operate in their communities.

For instance, many cities limit the number of permits available to street vendors. As a result, obtaining a license can be competitive. People can remain on permit waitlists for years, and some cities won’t accept applications because there just aren’t enough permits available. In New York City, street vending has been commonplace for several decades, and the cap on the number of permits available hadn’t increased from the 1980s until 2021. People who currently own permits will rent them to others for as much as $20,000, creating additional complications around responsibility and ownership. However, unlimited permits come with their own issues—in San Diego, the mayor and other city officials are committed to cracking down on the number of vendors and claim the high volume of permits lead to crowded sidewalks, “unfair competition,” and more trash in certain neighborhoods.

Craig Willingham, the deputy director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, has spent years working with food sellers at supermarkets, bodegas, and farmers markets to expand access to healthy and reasonably priced food in New York City neighborhoods. He pointed out how limiting the number of available permits for street vendors has been a traditional means of controlling a form of commerce that cities have seen spiral quickly out of control. Additionally, while street vendors can be a way for people to access more affordable food, their presence is only one part of the greater issue of creating more access to fresh food in underserved neighborhoods.

While adjusting regulations that have remained the same for decades to meet modern needs and better reflect the relationship between street vendors and the areas they serve, Willingham noted how the issue isn’t just about increasing the number of available permits. The reasons people go into street vending are widespread and complex—some may be undocumented people who are understandably wary about the licensing process, while others are looking for ways to generate income with less oversight or regulation.

“I’m not sure what can be changed to make people feel more comfortable other than creating a different class to permit for people who don’t want to … be on the government’s radar,” Willingham said.

Ensuring food safety doesn’t require criminalizing vendors

While changing the permitting process and rules for street vendors may help in some respects, they still don’t address the issue of police violence and harassment directed toward street vendors. Unfortunately, support for and implementation of legislation that could help protect street vendors has been inconsistent at best. In Washington, D.C., city council legislation to decriminalize street vending without a license as a means of stopping police brutality toward street vendors has been debated but not passed. Activism to decriminalize street vending is growing in several cities, like New York City and Los Angeles, often led by street vendors themselves.

Although people who enjoy food from local vendors or who support immigrants trying to make a living generally support this cause, there are some cities where they have faced strong opposition. In San Diego, business owners and city officials claim vendors are cluttering the sidewalk and creating competition for brick and mortar businesses. Some public figures have pointed the finger at unlicensed street vendors as taking away resources and business from brick and mortar establishments, although it’s unclear exactly why this is suddenly a problem now that street vendors are appearing when those brick and mortar establishments were already competing with each other for those same resources and business. The common thread in the pushback against easing restrictions on food vendors is the implication that doing so means not caring about food safety. But advocates maintain that the real issue is how the current system relies on armed agents of the state to enforce an industry of a primarily vulnerable group of workers, which doesn’t actually lead to food safety, just more violence against immigrants selling food.

For many people who live in cities, street vendors are a valued part of their communities, offering fresh food in places where there are often grocery gaps and providing jobs for many immigrant communities. Regulation and oversight of food production are essential to keeping food safe for public consumption and benefit both street vendors and their customers. However, without reckoning with how those rules may be harming those they’re meant to protect, they also help perpetuate socioeconomic inequalities and state-sanctioned violence, especially when they rely solely on criminalization for enforcement. Particularly in a pandemic when already vulnerable communities are in dire need of fresh, safe, and available food more than ever, harassing street vendors and throwing away countless amounts of food over a lack of permits isn’t a solution that protects anything but needless and outdated bureaucracy.

Kinjo Kiema (she/her) is a Kenyan-American organizer and writer based in Washington DC. You can follow her on Twitter @captain_kinj.

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