NYC police’s quality of life strategy for subways: arrest food vendors

Clip of police handcuffing a woman selling churros at a subway station went viral as over-policing becomes a hot-button issue

Along with cat videos and TikToks, a relatively new type of clip has become fodder for thousands of users on social media: police in the New York City subway.

A growing archive of videos and pictures on social media have been held up as proof that the citys subway system, run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), is under excessive policing after it was announced in September that the MTA would be hiring 500 officers to join its police force.

In October, two clips of scuffles with the police went viral. One showed a group of cops trying to restrain a group of teenagers at a subway stop, including a frame of an officer punching a young man in the face. A second showed showed police drawing their guns and storming a subway car.

This steady stream of videos appear to pop up on social media every few weeks and go viral, firing up debates about the MTA, New York police department (NYPD) officers and everyday subway riders.

Most recently, a clip of police handcuffing a woman selling churros on 9 November racked up nearly three million views on Twitter.

The scene was captured by Twitter user Sofia Newman, who approached the NYPD officers while filming. Whats going on? Why are you taking her shit away? she asks an officer as the woman selling churros looks visibly distraught. Its illegal to sell food in the subway stations and we warned her multiple times, and she doesnt want to give it up, an officer tells Newman.

Sofia B. Newman (@SofiaBNewman)

Tonight as I was leaving Broadway Junction, I saw three or four police officers (one of them was either a plainclothes cop or someone who worked at the station) gathered around a crying woman and her churro cart. Apparently, it's illegal to sell food inside train stations. 1/?

November 9, 2019

A second clip by Newman shows three officers handcuffing the woman as her cart is dragged into the stations offices.

Edward Delatorre, a top NYPD official, said on Twitter that the woman was not arrested, but received a summons for selling food in the subway station. The MTA prohibits commercial activity in the subway system without authorization.

Food vendors have dealt with arrests and fines for selling food in the subways for years. One vendor, Ana Alvarado, told a local news site in 2015 that she lives a life running and hiding from the police. She said she paid $46 to buy 200 churros from a local factory and made $80 to $120 of profit a day selling them in the stations. Taking the risk of selling in the station was worth the risk, she said, so she can support her two sons.

Vending has always been a way for immigrants to get a foothold in the economy in New York City, said Matthew Shapiro, legal director of the Street Vendor Project, adding that many women who are vendors are single mothers that appreciate the flexibility that vending provides. The city should encourage it and see it as entrepreneurship instead of criminalizing it.

A rally at the New York county courthouse on 6 November mandating elevators in every New York City subway station and to demand true MTA system accessibility. Photograph: Erik McGregor/Sipa USA/PA Images

Shapiro said that food vendors have always had issues with arrests and fines, but this new incident probably got more attention because over-policing in the subways has recently become a hot-button issue.

Last year, the MTA said that fare evasion cost the agency $215m, with about 208,000 people evading the fare each day. In response to what the MTA said was increasing fare evasion and assault on transit workers, New Yorks governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced 500 officers would be dispatched to 50 subway lines and 50 bus lines in June.

Ads appeared on the subway warning riders of the $100 fine that would come with evading the $2.75 fare. Cuomo also announced in September the MTA would hire and train an additional 500 police officers to curb quality of life issues in the transit system and enhance cleanliness and safety.

The problem is the continuously underfunded MTA system that Cuomo and the mayor are now looking for a scapegoat, and theyre blaming the poor black and brown children that are jumping over turnstiles and these churro ladies, said New York City council member Antonio Reynoso at a rally on 13 November in support of a second woman who was handcuffed for selling churros at a subway station.

The city and the MTA have been pointing fingers at each other over responsibility for the handling of the food vendor arrests. Were calling on the MTA to designate zones where food vendors can sell their goods freeing up our officers to focus on keeping New Yorkers safe, wrote Freddi Goldstein, press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasios office.

In response, Abbey Collins, the MTAs chief communication officer, fired back: Thats not what the MTA does. We are responsible for running a safe and secure transit system. Collins pointed out that the city is in charge of licensing and permitting food vendors to make sure they meet health codes.

At an MTA board meeting on 14 November, the MTA chairman, Patrick Foye, said they would consider the citys proposal to allow food vendors in the stations, though he had concerns. Were concerned about trash, were concerned about vermin. Were concerned about cost, he said.

Subway riders at the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, where the second churro lady was arrested, said they do not mind the presence of food vendors in the station.

They are doing nothing bad, they just need money, Eduardo Perez, 25, of Brooklyn said of the food vendors. Perez said the presence of police in the stations makes him feel safer, but they should not be mistreating the food vendors. I think if theyre doing it, its because they need to. Just give them a chance.

Bob R, 64, of Brooklyn who declined to give his last name, said that he was saddened to see what happened to the churro lady but the cops have a job to do.

The law is the law. The more cops that are on the subway, the better off we are, he said, adding that he often rides the subway at 2am to 3am in the morning after doing his shifts as a chauffeur in Manhattan.

But for others, the police presence can be rattling. Giselle Olivero, 21, said that she was questioned by police one day when she was running late for her classes at a local college. She thinks they thought she was a high school student and asked for her ID.

When the police are around, you have that consciousness, like youre still intimidated by them even though youre doing nothing wrong, she said.

Olivero said she sympathizes with the churro ladies. I always buy from the churro ladies. I always feel comfortable around them. The cops here are just intimidating for them and for me.

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