Street Vendors Celebrate and Organize

Members of the Street Vendor Project join hands and chant “Vendor power!” and “Sí, se puede!” at the end of the International Street Vendors Day celebration. (Photo by Samantha Maldonado for Voices of NY)

More than 100 street vendors gathered in lower Manhattan to mark the fifth annual International Street Vendors Day with food and organizing activities. The Urban Justice League’s Street Vendor Project organized the event at their offices at 40 Rector St. on Tuesday to celebrate vendors’ contributions to city life.

“We go outside in the cold and boiling hot to feed our families,” said Mahmoud Ebrahim, of Queens, who vends on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. “We feed this city breakfast, we feed this city lunch, we feed this city dinner.”

There was constant, accented chatter and a flurry of activity as attendees helped themselves to a potluck-style meal of rice, chicken, tamales, and other dishes. The organizers passed around listening devices so attendees could hear real-time translations of speakers at the event into Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic.

“You can actually taste the world, globally, through food with street vendors here in New York City,” said vendor Dondi McKellar, 55, a South Bronx resident and veteran who also serves on the Street Vendor Project’s leadership board. “As we come together, there’s power. That’s vendor power.”

That power is manifesting itself in different ways. Street Vendor Power, a 501(c)(4) offshoot of the Street Vendor Project, stumped for Assemblyman Francisco Moya in the recent City Council election. His victory served as a reminder of the impact vendors’ groups have if they persist.

This persistence, organizers reminded the vendors, will have to continue in the “Lift the Cap” campaign, a push for Bill 1303 to pass in the City Council at the end of December. The bill would add almost 4,500 more vending permits in the city over the next 7 to 8 years, enabling almost twice as many vendors to operate legally, thus avoiding hefty fines and entanglements with law enforcement as they make a living. The longstanding limit on such permits has created a thriving black market for the permits, which now go for $20,000 or $25,000, according to organizer Cesar Boc of the Street Vendor Project.

“This bill would modernize vending laws,” Boc said, adding that it would also create a taskforce for vendor input on the laws.

“The next six weeks we need to be strong,” said Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project. “It’s going to change your life and the lives of many, many people.”

The otherwise high-spirited celebration took on a more serious tone when Suzanne Adely, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild International Committee, led a “Know Your Rights” presentation for the vendors present. She offered advice for what vendors should do if approached by police or ICE while on the street or if agents or officers show up at a vendor’s home, emphasizing that no matter where the vendors are from or their immigration status, they are guaranteed constitutional rights.

“If you don’t have papers, don’t show them anything,” she said. “There’s a possibility because of the kind of government we have now that they can look into your past and use it as an excuse, so even if you have your papers, you may be at risk.”

Adely said ICE agents or police could not enter homes without a judicial warrant, and she showed examples of what one such warrant would look like: it would include the name of a court and a judge’s signature, unlike an internal document that was not a warrant that she said officials sometimes have instead.

The celebration ended with the vendors circling up and joining hands, chanting “Vendor power!” and “Sí, se puede!” as they raised their clasped arms in unison.

Samantha Maldonado is a member of the 2018 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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