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Work Within the System? Plaza Tonatiuh Organizers Seek Legal Status

Issue 279

Organizers of a popular open-air market and community hub in Sunset Park are trying a new approach after being shut down by the NYPD.

Amba Guerguerian May 11, 2023

On the morning of Sunday, April 2, tensions quickly escalated in Sunset Park as police kept around 60 vendors associated with Plaza Tonatiuh from setting up their stalls. 

Plaza Tonatiuh is an unpermitted market held on Sundays from spring to fall. It was founded in 2021 by Mexicanos Unidos (MxU), a socialist community organization. Each week, narrow pathways between rows of vendors in the park were crowded with attendees of all ages. Vendors sell Mexican and other Latin American food, household items, toys, clothes, jewelry and more. A host of cultural dances and music, children’s activities and political assemblies also were also staples of the Plaza. 

April 2 was supposed to be the first Plaza Tonatiuh of this season, but vendors weren’t able to sell their goods — the police threatened anyone that tried with costly tickets.

“It helps not only to come and vend, but to get to know more families. Our kids get to meet other kids, get to know what community is, explore more, which is also really important to us,” Abundia, who started selling frappés at the Plaza last year, told The Indypendent. She, a house cleaner and her husband, who worked in a deli, were both laid off at the onset of COVID.

“The people understood [that Plaza is unpermitted], and that’s a risk they were willing to take because nine out of 10 of the participants have trouble paying rent,” says Leo, the chair of MxU.

By the end of last season, there were more than 80 immigrant vendors in the Plaza, with over 100 who wanted to participate. In the first week of November, after the close of the 2022 season, around 60 vendors came together in Sunset Park to debrief what went well and poorly that year, and how things could be improved going into 2023. 

April 2 was supposed to be the first Plaza Tonatiuh of this season, but vendors weren’t able to sell their goods — the police threatened anyone that tried with costly tickets. @AshAgony tweeted that cops “targeted a man allegedly selling cotton candy, ran up on him, & tried to grab him. Luckily, people from the crowd were able to de-arrest the man.” 

Police tackled and arrested one of the activists who was blocking them from ticketing an icre-cream vendor and charged him with inciting a riot, MxU told The Indy.

Plaza Tonatiah participants returned April 9 to give food away and celebrate Easter with cultural and musical presentations. They decided not to vend, considering the risk presented the week prior. “We had made food to give away. We had cultural and musical presentations prepared. … We had an Easter egg hunt prepared for the children we had been yes as and gifts study and the rosary prayer planned. But we were unable to complete the program,” said Paz, MxU member and Plaza organizer. 

The NYPD and Parks Police shut everything down with force by the early afternoon, claiming unlawful assembly and illegal vending. Children and elderly people were a part of the mix. Two people who showed up after the police cleared the park were arrested for expressing frustration at the fact that they were told to vacate the premises.  Paz detailed the police interaction:

They were all putting on their black gloves. And they were like convening. And you know, we figured that that meant that they were going to come towards us they were going to attempt to do something. So we created a line of defense primarily in front of the children. … I guess their intention was — I'm assuming — to confiscate the food and the tables. But but when they weren't let through, chaos erupted after that. … It left a lot of the families and the community members — even like the bystanders that it had nothing to do with, even they got rushed by the parks enforcement agents — everybody was just in shock from like the sinister assault.

“When the police come, we feel powerless,” says Abundia.

“The presence of police, and especially in numbers, is oppressive and often leads to violence, if not 100% of the time,” says Sunset Park City Councilmember Alexa Avilés.

Being unpermitted and outwardly anti-cop, Plaza organizers have had confrontations with Parks Police in years past. “We did expect police pushback. I don’t think we expected that much, like a joint operation” [involving the NYPD], Leo said

“We don’t understand what the problem is, but it feels unfair. All the families came, it looked really nice,” Alejandra Olmedo, a Sunset Park resident for nearly a decade who used to visit the Plaza with her husband and children, told The Indy. “Now coming here, it looks really sad.”

“They’re trying to make a living, these people,” said Soto, a neighborhood resident of around 50 years. “They’re not harming anyone. There’s people doing much worse.”

•   •   •

On April 16, Plaza and MxU members convened again, but in a way that did not at all resemble the Plaza of the past. Vendors went around the park with a petition supporting the Plaza that currently has more than 1,150 signatures. A variety of leftist community organizations from all five boroughs were present to show support. They made a circle around a Puerto Rican bomba group that has been playing drums in the park in support of the Plaza on recent Sundays.

“We die all the time without being dead. The police attack us all the time and each time it kills you a little bit. I’m 69. Enough!” said bomba musician Angel R. Rodriguez, 69, to the crowd.

There are 6,000 vending permits available in New York City — far less than the estimated 20,000 vendors.

Jessica Dunn, a member of Crown Heights Tenant Union, also spoke. “We will be here with y’all fighting this fight until our buildings, until our blocks, until our parks are spaces where we all can assemble, build power and fight back against all this bullshit that is preventing us from coming together,” she said. Other groups present included Brooklyn Eviction Defense, Copwatch Patrol Unit, Decolonize This Place, the Mutual Aid Collective, South Bronx Mutual Aid, New York Boricua Resistance, DSA’s Marxist Unity Group and Parkies for Plaza, a recently-founded group of Parks workers. Within Our Lifetime Palestine also supports the Plaza.

Pines, an active protester who met MxU in 2021 during demonstrations at Bergen County Jail in North Jersey to support hunger-striking ICE detainees held there, was also at the rally. “As someone who has the privilege, I guess, of being not undocumented — as much as being a descendant of slave people — it’s important to show up for the people who can’t, who don’t have as much privilege where they can’t afford to be as brazen with police and things like that,” he said. 

•   •   •

Faced with an unrelenting police crackdown, MxU and Plaza members have decided to work within the system. During the April 16 rally, vendors went around the park with a petition supporting the Plaza and asking for the City to allow its members to sell in Sunset Park; it has received more than 1,150 signatures. 

According to the Street Vendor Project, the wait time for an individual to obtain a food vending permit in New York City is at least a decade, and there are 5,000 mobile food licenses and not even 1,000 general merchandise vendor licenses — far less than the estimated 20,000 vendors in the city. As such, illegal vending is common — and fines are expensive.

The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) took over as the main city agency handling street vendor enforcement in 2021. But the NYPD remains active in enforcement, too. Together, the agencies issued 2,427 tickets to vendors from May 2021 to May 2022, a 33% increase compared to 2019. (A street vendor was fined $2,050 for selling tacos in 2021.) The NYPD and DCWP together doled out 5,197 tickets to vendors last year, with the police department issuing significantly more tickets, despite a de Blasio-era pledge to shift them away from enforcement, reports city limits.

Despite the city’s dearth of permits, it is possible for the Parks Department to open a “request for proposal” for any given park, which is essentially an application that, if approved, allows for an entity to have a permitted vendors market in that park via a “concessionare agreement.” These agreements only cover a limited number of vendors, and the process is complicated and lacks precedent.

Most of the roughly 100 vendors associated with Plaza each represent a family that benefits from the sales. Covering just a handful of vendors won’t do, says Abundia. “We want to negotiate, obviously, but it can’t just be that few,” says Abundia. “We are many families.”

If the group were able to secure a concessionare agreement with Parks, it would have all vendors participate in a rotating, cooperative format. “It’s not the sexiest or the most radical and it’s not what we really need, but it’s where we’re going to start,” said Leo, “because this is what the people want, we want to make this safe and secure.” 

MxU tells The Indy it will likely create a worker cooperative LLC ahead of potential negotiations with the Parks Department. Support from their local Councilmember will be crucial in opening a Request for Proposal at Sunset Park. But a series of conflicts beginning last summer has left a fraught relationship between MxU/Plaza Tonatiuh members and Councilmember Avilés.

“We want to move past that,” says Leo. “We would like to work with her.” Currently, the group is leading a campaign urging Avilés to support its efforts. 

According to Avilés, Plaza organizers are responsible for an “altercation with several Parks officers over a long time.” For her to act as a liaison, “There has to be accountability and repair. They have to build trust,” said Avilés, who was elected in 2021 with the backing of New York City DSA. 

On May 4, the council member hosted a “Sunset Park Street vending community conversation.” Of the roughly 250 participants, a large majority were present in support of Plaza. 

Meanwhile, Mexicanos Unidos continues holding events in spaces where a few vendors at a time can sell. It is also in the early stages of planning with Brooklyn Eviction Defense and Sunset Park Tenant Union to strengthen tenant organizing in the area.

Bit P. contributed to this report.

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