NYPD

New York City Cops Will Finally Stop Targeting Street Food Vendors

But it's not enough. NYC needs to unleash its food vendors.

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The police in New York City will stop overseeing and ticketing street food vendors, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week. Responsibility for enforcing mobile vending rules will reside with other departments, including health, sanitation, and parks. 

This is an overdue and welcome move. Police have made life hell for decades for vendors in the city. In 2015, for example, the NYPD issued nearly 19,000 tickets to vendors.

Vending without a permit, The New York Times notes, is illegal, and puts vendors "at risk of fines, property confiscation and arrest." Many of the people put at risk by these policies are immigrants and people of color. Even before nationwide protests erupted over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last month, New Yorkers were questioning police tactics for dealing with street vendors. 

For example, police arrested at least two churro vendors operating in city subways in November for selling food without a permit. That same month, a viral video captured four policemen appearing to pin, kneel on, and arrest an African American man who allegedly was selling candy in the subway. 

The video of vendor Byron Shark's violent arrest is reminiscent of video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis police last month and of video showing NYPD pinning and killing vendor Eric Garner in 2014. Shark, who alleges the police injured him needlessly, has announced plans to sue the city for $5 million.

These arrests, Grub Street reported last year, became "a flash point in the conversations about ramped-up subway policing and food vendors."

Some, though, were unmoved by the arrests. New York Post columnist Bob McManus argued the vendors' arrests mostly illustrated the need for more law and order.

"[O]ver time minor infractions add up to major disruptions, especially when committed by persons who show no particular respect for law in the first place," he wrote, echoing the draconian policing strategies advocated by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. "Churro-hawking is no big deal," McManus later admits in his column. In other words, McManus believes arresting street vendors will teach them to "respect" laws that criminalize peaceful sales of tasty foods, sales which even McManus admits are "no big deal." (I disagreed.)

While the city's plan to shift vending-enforcement duties away from city police is a welcome change, it doesn't address "the root of the problem," the New York Daily News rightly noted this week. "The city has a decades-long cap on street vending [permits] that makes it all but impossible for a new vendor to break into the business."

Indeed, New York City's renewable, bi-annual permit ceiling has been capped at just over 3,000 for decades, I explained in a 2011 article for Reason's print magazine. (City permits, which are capped, are generally required for all trucks, stands, and carts. Licenses, which are not capped, are generally required for people who work at those trucks, stands, and carts.) That artificially low cap forces thousands of interested city vendors either to operate without a permit, which is illegal, or to buy a permit on the black market, which is also illegal.

As I've detailed time and again, New York City has a long and shameful history of idiotic crackdowns on all sorts of foods and eaters—from foragers to soda, foie gras, salt, and those who would share food with the homeless and hungry.

This week's move by Mayor de Blasio is a positive one that should de-escalate dangerous and needless confrontations such as that between police and candy vendor Byron Shark. But it falls far short of giving New York City's great street food vendors what they most need: the freedom to operate legally in the city.

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  1. I’m sure everyone is looking forward to elbowing their way through the thick crowds of churros vendors in the subways.

    1. Yes, because common sense and basic economics tells us that churro vendors, like all people, enjoy wasting their time and effort in useless endeavors, such as congregating so heavily that they outnumber the customers and must sell to each other to make up for it in volume.

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      2. Ever been to somewhere like Ocho Rios in Jamaica, Where you literally can’t take two steps without being hustled or hassled by people wanting to sell you something or guide you or get you a taxi, etc.?

        1. Yes, It was great. Our guide offered to drop us off at a site and come back later while keeping our bags with him. Allowed him to make some more money while we did our things without the hassle off our stuff and he showed up right on time with no issue whatsoever. I just never take the first guy. There is a lower price/ better deal further down the road and I am willing to walk that bit.

  2. How long before NYC arms the health department, because some vendor refused to bow to an inspector?
    I can see a cap on the number of vendors if it is based on some reasonable proportion of the available space from which to vend, but 3,000 sounds like a made up number. I have been in cities where you cannot walk because of the wall to wall vendors, and where all street parking is taken up by food trucks. I have been in cities where you could starve to death if you cannot afford the high priced “real” restaurants.
    But in general, if NYC does it, it is probably wrong.

    1. . I have been in cities where you cannot walk because of the wall to wall vendors, and where all street parking is taken up by food trucks.
      Unpossible. I was told on this thread just above this could not happen.

      1. Yes, it is unpossible. Practice a little common sense. Why would vendors create so much congestion that customers cannot get to them? It’s a cartoon scenario. It’s shorthand for “I don’t like them and think there were too many for my taste.”

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  3. For example, police arrested at least two churro vendors operating in city subways in November for selling food without a permit. That same month, a viral video captured four policemen appearing to pin, kneel on, and arrest an African American man who allegedly was selling candy in the subway.

    Could these vendors switch with impunity to selling rat traps?

  4. NYC is an unfree polity. The problem with changing that condition is that working majorities of its denizens seem to like it that way.

    1. Despite all this, I had the best sausage ever from a street vendor in New York City. $10 and cooked right in front of me with careful detail given to what I wanted. One of the top 5 best meals ever.

  5. First sentence:

    The police in New York City will stop overseeing and ticketing street food vendors, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week.

    “Hey, baby steps, we’ll make progress eventually.” Second sentence:

    Responsibility for enforcing mobile vending rules will reside with other departments, including health, sanitation, and parks.

    “Oh. Nevermind. Fake progress.”

    See, this sounds like a good idea until someone violently protests having their food stand removed by the Health & Sanitation department. Then either they need to get violent with the person, or else they’re just going to call the police.

    The problem is that you’ve created a broken policy that is unpopular. Because this policy doesn’t actually further the pursuit of justice, people are quite happy to break it because it’s a victimless crime. And when any authority comes in to stop people from doing something that isn’t hurting anyone, they will resent that authority, and it turns the authorities into the thugs of the state.

    1. this sounds like a good idea until someone violently protests having their food stand removed by the Health & Sanitation department. Then either they need to get violent with the person, or else they’re just going to call the police.

      How many of those 19,000 tickets to food vendors were violent in the absence of the cops themselves MAKING it about violence because that’s what cops tend to do? And in particular where cops escalate to violence when the vendor merely starts yelling/arguing? If I were to guess, it would be maybe a couple of hundred – max.

      Cops suck at talking situations down. They aren’t well-trained in that. It ain’t their instinct. And the major reasons there aren’t women beat cops (and yes women do tend to be better at talking things down and NYC officers is roughly 80/20 male/female and I’ll bet much higher than that for street) is precisely because ‘well they can’t possibly handle the required physical violence’.

      Everything about cops is structured for violence. Applying physical coercion and muscle to every situation as the required go-to default. As is your ‘what-if’ and resistance to reform.

      1. Part of the reason cops suck at talking things down is that they are there to enforce draconian policies. “I’m not hurting anyone,” someone might say, in response to being told they have to move their food cart. And police have no comeback for that other than, “You’re violating the city code and it can’t be allowed.”

        If you send someone else to enforce the draconian policy, they’re going to suck just as much at talking people down when they don’t want to comply.

        1. Police have no comeback for that because their role IS Blaster – not Master. And Master becomes a bigger asshole when they’ve got Blaster

      2. And note – in those couple hundred max situations where it may escalate to violence, it is no longer about ‘food vendors’ but about some violent crime that is not being prevented but is being STOPPED. Something that is actually post-facto rather than coming up with some fake bullshit to rationalize and cover-up violence that was actually initiated by the cops.

        Further, the best way to actually reduce these nuisance-type violations and enforcement stuff – to take those regs off the books over time – is to enforce them by someone who is NOT being chosen simply because they are the most intimidating bully you can find. It’s very easy to create shitty laws when you’ve already got a ton of bullies at your command to enforce everything.

        1. There’s still the issue of enforcement when you have shitty laws, no matter who is doing it. Simply shifting the responsibility to someone else isn’t going to magically fix the problem of what happens when you tell someone “You can’t sell food here” and they say, “Try and stop me.”

          Sure, you can write them a ticket, but then who will force them to pay it? Most of the people doing this are convinced of two things-that it’s impossible, or unreasonably burdensome, to get a license, and that they are not committing a moral wrong.

          1. You haven’t ‘solved’ that problem by sending a physically intimidating bully to enforce it. I’m arguing the reverse. You make it EASIER to keep shitty petty laws around when you already have an enforcement mechanism around to enforce seriously violent laws. Just repurpose that enforcement to the shitty petty law and hey presto you don’t even need to think about enforcement of laws anymore. The sky now becomes the limit for creating shitty petty laws against the non-violent that make you look good or get votes or deliver favors to cronies.

            1. And I just think you’ve got the cause and effect reversed. Look at the UK-most of their police force is unarmed and not really capable of acting as the bully to keep their foot on the neck of the population. It hasn’t stopped them from banning sharp knives, or passing a new public health law that says you can’t have sex with people you don’t live with. They still have an armed response unit that comes in on occasions to visit violence upon the non-compliant.

              The solution is not to have petty laws in the first place to ensure the maximum amount of freedom.

              1. And the second you utter ‘See, this sounds like a good idea until someone violently protests having their food stand removed by the Health & Sanitation department. Then either they need to get violent with the person, or else they’re just going to call the police.’, then you’ve undermined that assertion.

                Either the police don’t exist even for violent crimes. Or, you claim, they should be the enforcement mechanisms for everything else that might potentially turn violent.

                Well pretty much anything can turn violent. Eviction on behalf of a private landlord. Shoplifting. Someone being laid off. Neighborhood/family disputes. Someone in hospital being told a sick relative is going to die and there’s nothing that can be done. A homeless schizo who gets shot 22 times by cops who stopped him because he was ‘walking in the street’. An old man doing a bit of protest street theater. Someone being given a parking ticket – or a food vendor ticket. Someone driving while black ‘in the wrong neighborhood’.

                Problem is – you don’t get ANYWHERE arguing about which of those are too petty to even exist – as long as the enforcement of everything increases the odds of violence and indeed forces someone considering non-compliance to also consider how much they are willing to escalate to violence.

                Your example of the UK may not actually be relevant. If people in the UK think those laws there are petty, then it’s presumably up to them to decide whether to comply or not or change the law or not. It’s not up to you or me or some philosophy to decide that those laws are petty. The French actually prefer having a law that they know will not be complied with rather than not having a law because it won’t be complied with. Its a cultural thing. IDK whether NYC would decide that food truck laws are petty overreach or not. It’s up to them isn’t it.

                But there will be no ‘discussion’ of whether food truck tickets are petty – when 1000-1500 people in the US are killed by enforcement each year and people in NYC HAVE been killed by cops for ‘selling shit without a license’. THAT is what is being protested – and rightly so because it is the significant problem. There CAN be a discussion of petty shit in places like the UK (3 killed per year by cops), Germany (11 killed per year by cops), France (26 killed per year by cops) precisely because the ‘killed by enforcement’ problem isn’t significant. If the discussion isn’t happening there, it’s because they have a different definition of petty shit than you do.

    2. I’m not sure, since I have nothing to do with NY, but I’d bet a dollar that these departments already have armed enforcement.

    3. You didn’t follow the news link, did you? If you had, you would have seen what Linnekin failed to mention:

      De Blasio also announced Sunday that the city would create a new civilian agency to oversee street vendors, but the mayor’s announcement didn’t make it clear if this agency would then be the only body overseeing vendors.

      If you think this is in any way going to streamline the process for acquiring indulgences from the municipal clerisy, think again. It won’t provide a net positive for the vendors or the taxpayers, but it will provide new job opportunities for unionized government parasites and all the attendant opportunities for graft and corruption. The cops may no longer be the bagmen for the city, but somebody’s still got to collect that rent.

  6. Q: What did the Zen Buddhist Master say to the NYC hotdog vendor?

    A: Make me One with Everything!

    1. You forgot the second part:

      After getting his hot dog, the master handed the vendor a twenty and the vendor stuck it in his pocket. The master asked “What about my change?” and the vendor smiled serenely and replied, “Change must come from within.”

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  7. So, the problem isn’t going away. It will be just another buerocratic official harrassing food vendors.

    1. Like Space Force, but for hot dog carts.

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