‘Shameful’: Sunset Park’s Plaza Tonatiuh to continue without vendors after cops target weekly market

cops watch over weekly plaza tonatiuh gathering
A handful of cops watch over a peaceful rally held April 16 in solidarity with vendors recently targeted in Sunset Park by law enforcement
Photo by Adam Daly

Organizers of Plaza Tonatiuh in Sunset Park say they will continue to gather in the nabe’s namesake park without vendors after  police and parks department workers, who say they are trying to crack down on illegal vending, threatened to arrest sellers on multiple consecutive weekends. 

A peaceful crowd gathered Sunday to support organizers Mexicanos Unidos and its vendors, who have for the previous two weeks faced a standoff with the NYPD and park cops as they continue to fight for a deal to operate legally.

The Plaza began as a space for vendors, artists, musicians in March 2021, with just eight vendors who joined together to protect each other from harassment. Since then, it has grown into a weekly event celebrating Latinx culture and community with up to one hundred vendors attending each weekend.

However, vendors were unable to set up their booths for the first Plaza of the year on April 2 due to the threat of arrest and ticketing.

Video footage captured that Sunday and shared on social media shows cops and park police gathered around vendors as well as tense exchanges between the crowds standing up to officers. Attendees said police attempted to arrest at least one vendor, and at one point threw a man to the ground and cuffed him. 

The following Sunday, April 9, a scaled-back event was planned for Easter, with activities for kids and free food to avoid a repeat of the previous week. But organizers said that once they gathered a crowd, it attracted the attention of law enforcement who were present in the park from early that morning.

“Once we started gathering up, the police and parks enforcement — this time in high quantity — just started charging, and interrupted some ceremonial practices — including a rosary for Easter Sunday,” said Mexicanos Unidos member Xio Tacho

“They basically said that we were there in protests when we were actually just trying to celebrate community and have activities for the kids. In no way were we planning on protesting that day,” he said.

On top of the market and music, Plaza runs political education programs and workshops
On top of the market and music, Plaza runs political education programs and workshopsPhoto courtesy of Mexicanos Unidos

In a statement on its Instagram page after the Easter Sunday standoff, Mexicanos Unidos accused the NYPD and NYC Parks officers of violating their rights to exercise free speech, assembly, and freedom of religion in a public park.

“We had tables with free food, workshops for kids and planned programming like Easter egg hunt and two piñatas. We wanted to build with community and hold a space for everyone to speak with each other. The pigs and park pigs viewed our unity and solidarity as protest,” the statement read.

At about 1 p.m., parks officers “violently used force against us to disrupt a sacred indigenous ceremony,” the statement continues. Organizers and attendees tried to convey that the food was being given away, not sold, to no avail.

Footage shared online shows a use of force to disperse park-goers gathered for Plaza. 

Writing about his experience that Sunday in Brooklyn Magazine, photographer Clay Williams described the response of authorities as “blowing past tone deaf and heads straight for obscene.”

A long wait for legal vending licenses

NYC Parks Parks Enforcement Patrol and the NYPD said they were jointly addressing illegal vending at Sunset Park in response to “neighborhood complaints that the large footprint of the illegal vending prevents park patrons from using the park on Sundays.”

Due to the number of law enforcement officers in the park of late, Mexicanos Unidos have asked vendors to leave their wares at home until a solution is found. 

On April 16, a handful of cops and park officers watched on as a peaceful rally was held in support of the Plaza and its vendors.

“This past Sunday, we asked some of the vendors not to pull up because we also don’t want to put them at risk, ” said Tacho. “We understand that some of these vendors do have mixed status and the last thing we want is any of them being picked up by the NYPD.”

For the foreseeable future, Mexicanos Unidos say they are not going anywhere but will not have any vendors at future events until the issue is resolved. Up until now, vending there has gone on without permits because they are difficult to obtain, according to organizers, with separate permits and licenses required for those selling merchandise or food. 

Plaza had close to 100 vendors at the end of last year, up from eight when the market first began in 2021
Plaza had close to 100 vendors at the end of last year, up from eight when the market first began in 2020. Photo courtesy of Mexicanos Unidos

The mostly-immigrant population representing the bulk of street vendors city-wide can either rent an existing license or risk fines of up to $1,000, as well as the confiscation of their wares for working without a license, or with a license but without a location-based permit.

About 20,000 vendors work on the streets of the five boroughs, according to the Street Vendor Project. But most of them say they have no choice but to work in the shadows due to a decades-old city law capping the number of merchandise vendor licenses at 853, with few exceptions. Over 11,000 applicants are estimated to be currently sitting on a merchandise license.

In 2021, the City Council passed legislation creating nearly 4,500 new vendor licenses to be distributed over the next decade to food vendors, but the Street Vendor Project says the city’s rollout is too slow — with an estimated 10,00 people on that waiting list. 

“If we were to actually try to get licenses for the vendors, you know, a lot of the vendors will not make the cut pieces for various reasons. And that would just split Plaza into factions which we don’t want. We have a huge number of vendors and they are all aware that it’s better when we are all united,” Tacho said.

He added that the organization hopes a solution can be reached soon but that the ongoing treatment of vendors in the city was “shameful.”

“New York City is a very culturally diverse place to live in. So for the NYPD and these institutions to try to intimidate us while we are practicing some cultural practices, it is really shameful. NYC is supposed to be a safe haven for a lot of undocumented folks and what they are doing is the complete opposite.”