Brooklyn churro vendor arrest prompts outrage and calls for change

A Brooklyn churro vendor who only identified herself as Elsa claims she has been subject to harassment from transit cops. (Photo: Mark Hallum)

The arrest went viral this week on Twitter.

A churro vendor named Elsa has been selling sweet treats at the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn for four years — and received 10 summonses from police for doing so.

Being ticketed for the illegal sales is nothing new for Elsa, but on Friday, she found herself in handcuffs as members of NYPD Transit District 33 seized her churro cart. A bystander caught the incident on video and it soon went viral through social media.

At a rally Monday outside the Broadway Junction stop, Elsa and other churro vendors displayed their grief over the incident.

“I feel terrible, I’m asking for help, I’m a poor woman. I came here to work, they gave me 10 tickets,” Elsa said in Spanish. “I’m here alone and no one helps. I’m here for years but it wasn’t like this. This guy is very racist. I feel terrible, I tell them give me tickets but don’t take away my stuff, it’s all I have to work for my kids.”

Sofia Newman, the transit rider whose video of Elsa’s arrest received more than 1.8 million views, said she witnessed Elsa attempting to cooperate with a Spanish-speaking officer.

“But the commanding officer interrupted her from doing so several times, at one point waving his hand in her face and saying ‘Over here, I know you speak English,'” Newman said.

Churro vendors gave testimony to what they believe more harassment than enforcement. (Photo: Mark Hallum)

According to the NYPD, Elsa had been issued 10 summonses in the last five months and her detention in the precinct only lasted minutes.

“She refused to cooperate and was briefly handcuffed. Officers escorted her into the command where she was uncuffed. Her property was vouchered as arrest evidence and she was released within minutes,” a NYPD spokeswoman said. “This individual has been issued 10 summonses in the last five months for unlicensed vending at the same station. The command has received numerous complaints regarding unlicensed vendors at Broadway Junction due to health concerns and individuals interfering with pedestrian flow.”

Members of the Riders Alliance transit advocacy group, along with state Senator Julia Salazar, organized the Nov. 11 rally, which doubled as a call for the MTA and Governor Andrew Cuomo to abandon plans to add 500 additional officers to the subway system.

The Riders Alliance believes the extra officers, which are said to help crack down on fare-beating, act more as an attempt to criminalize poverty through another form of broken windows policing.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told reporters he was against more policing on the subways, especially considering the transit cops would not be required under the state to wear body cameras.

But the prevalence of transit workers being attacked and other aggressive behavior in the subway needs to be addressed at the source rather than with 500 more cops, according to Williams.

Mohamed Attia from an organization known as the Street Vendors Project claims the city puts vendors in a no-win situation. They have not issued new vendors permits since 1981 while bring down heavy punitive measures against anyone selling without a permit.

“A lot of regulations were placed on vendors in the 1970s and 80s that vendors today have to deal with,” Attia said. “Now, street vendors cannot obtain licenses from the city to sell legally … We don’t see anything wrong with a person trying to make a living. If there is a problem with the regulations, they need to be fixed. But don’t tell me that somebody needs to stop making a living because law is so outdated.”

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said more officers in the subways can only add to the safety of the system, but did not answer directly to questions of whether over-policing could backfire.

“But sometimes we’re going to have a situation that’s an emergency or a situation where officers have to respond as best they can under tough circumstances,” de Blasio said during a media availability at the Veterans Day Parade in Manhattan. “The point to me is to continue to evolve policing in a direction that we are closer and closer to communities, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

This is not the first time the city has found itself in hot water over it’s treatment of street vendors.

In April, up to 300 vendors will get paid out from $188,000 from the city after a class action lawsuit claimed the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had confiscated and destroyed the carts vendors who had been issued violations while selling goods on the street.

Coincidentally, just before Monday’s press conference, another churro vendor wound up in handcuffs at the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenues station on the Ridgewood/Bushwick border, Bushwick Daily reported.

Silvana Diaz contributed to this report.

Mark Hallum