In a viral video recorded by subway rider Sofia Newman, four police officers are seen surrounding a crying woman, who was later identified only as Elsa.
The cops confiscated the churro cart and handcuffed Elsa as they entered Transit District 33 inside the station. She was issued a civil summons.
On Monday afternoon, dozens of transit activists, street vendor advocates and lawmakers rallied in front of the Brooklyn station to denounce the incident.
They called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to reconsider adding 500 new transit cops on the subway, and instead to invest the money in improving service for riders.
“We demand no new cops,” said Rebecca Bailin, political director for the group Riders Alliance. “Fix the subway.”
The rally also served to highlight what advocates called an “outdated” regulatory system governing vendor permits and licenses.
Mohamed Attia, executive director of The Street Vendor Project, said “basically nobody can get any more” permits, forcing vendors to sell without licenses or work in an underground market.
“We don’t see anything wrong about a person trying to make a living,” he said. “This situation happens all across the city, not only in this subway station.”
As the rally was taking place Monday, another churro vendor was handcuffed and given a summons at the Myrtle-Wyckoff station bordering Bushwick and Ridgewood, according to reports.
The Street Vendor Project has been advocating for city legislation to lift the cap by thousands of permits. The bill has 29 co-sponsors, said Attia, who urged the City Council to pass the legislation.
Another proposal in Albany by State Senator Jessica Ramos would lift the cap on street vendor permits entirely.
“Elected officials need to step up and change the law to make sure people can make a living legally and work safely,” Attia said.
At the rally, Newman described what she saw on Friday at the subway station. When she asked the officers what was going on, they told her it was illegal to sell food inside a station and that Elsa had been “warned multiple times.”
According to Newman, the cops gave Elsa an ultimatum: surrender the cart and receive a fine or have the food confiscated and be arrested.
Elsa, refusing to let go of her churro cart, tried to communicate with a Spanish-speaking officer, Newman said. But the commanding officer at the station interrupted her, and at one point told her,” I know you speak English” and asked, “Are you done?” as she was crying.
Newman reiterated calls for the governor to abandon a plan to hire new cops.
“This is what happens when 500 extra police officers are assigned to patrol the subways,” she said. “This is what happens when resources are used to target vendors and people who can’t afford the fare, rather than to improve a dysfunctional public transit system.
“I take the subway everyday, and what these cops are doing does not make me feel any safer,” Newman added. “She is a cherished member of the community. She deserves to be protected by the law, not victimized by it.”
Midway through the rally, Elsa and a few other churro vendors came to the station. Speaking in Spanish and at times holding back tears, she recounted her struggle with officers as they seized her cart.
She said they “forcibly tried to remove” the cart from her, and that the interaction became “aggressive and violent.”
Elsa was detained for 10 minutes, she said, and was taken to an area where there were no cameras. She said the officers “began to laugh” at her.
“She feels absolutely horrible,” a translator for Elsa said. “Feels very nervous, very stressed and absolutely devastated.
“They took away absolutely everything from her,” he added. “She left crying and broken.”
The churro vendor added that she had been selling at the station for more than three years. In the past, she was merely given a ticket by cops, but the interactions were never as aggressive.
In response to the viral video, NYPD Chief of Transit Edward Delatorre wrote on Twitter on Sunday that Elsa had received 10 summonses in the past six months.
He wrote that when she refused to comply with officers, she was “briefly cuffed” and her property was invoiced.
“Our officers have been responding to a number of recent complaints of violations at this station,” Delatorre wrote, “including the unlawful and unlicensed sale of food and other products.”
But lawmakers called the police officers’ actions an “overreach by the NYPD.” Councilman Rafael Espinal, who represents the area, said there was no need for the cops to “encroach and use such a sense of force” against someone who was just trying to make a living.
“What you’re building is a decline of respect, a decline of trust, from the community,” he said.
State Senator Julia Salazar said the officers were “criminalizing” Elsa and other street vendors. She said she fully supports Ramos’s legislation to remove the cap on vendor permits.
“We also need to make it more accessible and not cost-prohibitive,” Salazar said.
Last week, speaking on “Inside City Hall” on NY1, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that lifting the permit cap is “not the way to go,” and instead argued for “much tighter enforcement.”
He voiced concerns about the effect that allowing more street vendors would have on traditional brick-and-mortar small businesses, and the congestion more vendors would create on city streets.
“I would strongly urge the legislature to let us figure this out locally and not sort of create chaos here,” de Blasio said.
As for the incident involving Elsa, the mayor said on Monday that she “shouldn’t have been there” selling churros inside the train station, and that she was told multiple times it was against the law.
“The officers comported themselves properly from what I could see,” he said.
After the rally on Monday, Elsa approached the three officers at Broadway Junction who confiscated her churro cart to ask where it was. The cops did not initially respond.
Along with several activists, she asked for a “public conversation” in Spanish, but was ultimately denied.
Newman tweeted after the rally that she is working with The Street Vendor Project to set up a GoFundMe page to not only help Elsa, but “countless other vendors who are going through the same thing.”
“I’m hoping to have it up soon,” she wrote.