In videos that have since gone viral, she refuses to let go of the cart as authorities — who later said they had warned her to not sell the fried-dough snack in the subway without a permit — handcuff her and escort her to the adjoining police station.
Videos of the Friday incident have sparked fierce backlash from officials and residents questioning why authorities used their resources to apprehend a well-known churro vendor — a question heightened by concerns over whether increased policing in New York’s subway is making the city safer. The videos have been viewed about 3.3 million times as of early Monday.
“There was nothing dangerous about what she was doing,” Sofia B. Newman, a 23-year-old actress who filmed the videos, told The Washington Post. “The community loves her and everyone is outraged.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, the New York Police Department said the woman, who has not been identified, had been issued 10 summonses in the past five months for unlicensed vending at the same subway stop. The department said “she refused to cooperate and was briefly handcuffed” before being released minutes later. Her churro cart, however, was kept as arrest evidence. In its rules of conduct, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bans the sale of food inside the subway stations unless the vendors have a permit.
“The Command has received numerous complaints regarding unlicensed vendors at Broadway Junction due to health concerns and individuals interfering with pedestrian flow,” police said. It’s a sentiment echoed by NYPD Transit, which said the woman was not arrested and highlighted recent calls at the station involving “the unlawful and unlicensed sale of food and other products.”
Newman was coming home from work on Friday when she pulled out her cellphone and started recording the incident, appalled by what critics would later describe as an “overreach” of authority during a new era of heightened policing throughout the city’s subway stations.
“She’s just trying to sell some stuff,” Newman said to the police. “She is f------ powerless right now, you a-------.”
Newman said she saw one officer dressed in plainclothes roll his eyes at the woman when she responded in Spanish, interrupting her and asking whether she was done. “I know you can speak English,” one of the officers said to the woman, Newman tweeted. Newman asked one of the officers what the churro vendor had done to warrant an intimidating police presence.
“It’s illegal to sell food inside the subway stations,” the officer said, “and we warned her multiple times and she doesn’t want to give it up.”
Newman said one of the officers had threatened to send the woman to jail if she didn’t cooperate and hand over the cart. She refused, resulting in the scene of three officers dragging her to the transit police station as a plainclothes cop pulls the churro cart up the subway stairs.
“No matter what the law says, there is no reason why that many officers needed to encircle, demean, and police the poverty of that woman of color,” Newman wrote on Twitter. “It was an abuse of power, and yet another example of how broken our system is.”
The viral footage is the latest incident that has sparked criticism of a plan from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) to fund 500 new police officers to patrol the city’s public transit systems — part of an effort to curb fare evasion and the perception of increased crime on the subway. As The Post’s Katie Shepherd reported, NYPD officers last month pointed their guns at a 19-year-old through the windows of a train before they tackled and arrested him for fare evasion.
Though some defended the NYPD’s decision to handcuff the churro vendor, the incident drew vitriol from city lawmakers and public officials, who slammed Cuomo’s “horrible policy” and the effect the increase in policing on the subway system has had on the city.
“This is heartbreaking,” public defender Eliza Orlins said. “We cannot allow this to go on.”
New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (D) questioned why authorities were unable to persuade the woman “to leave w/out a fine or arrest,” while Comptroller Scott M. Stringer (D) said the kind of policing shown in the incident “doesn’t make anyone safer.”
“Why is a woman selling churros getting cuffed?” City Councilman Stephen Levin of Brooklyn (D) said. “Is this seriously affecting anyone’s ‘quality of life?’”
City Councilman Brad Lander, one of Levin’s Democratic colleagues in Brooklyn, tweeted that the incident reflects a policy of subway overpolicing that has turned New York into “a city where we pay public servants to arrest churro vendors.”
Other residents praised the woman, who was described by one person as having “done more for the subway than literally any transit cop.” Another man who claimed to see her often recalled how “lots of people like to buy a snack” from her while waiting on their train.
“Next time I see her, she gets whatever I have in my pocket, even if I’ve just been to the ATM,” he wrote.
Obtaining a permit to operate as a food vendor remains a difficult process, with the city health department capping the number of available licenses to 4,000, according to the New York Daily News. Because of the cap on the number of permits, which forces many vendors to pay up to $10,000 on the black market, lawmakers have introduced legislation to expand the total available licenses or get rid of the system altogether.
Newman told The Post she’s requested an incident report in the hopes of figuring out the woman’s identity. She hopes to help her get her cart back and to start a GoFundMe for her expenses.
“We just want to make sure she can make up for the wages lost from this, and that this doesn’t set her back any further than it already has,” Newman said.