The City of L.A. Can Protect Street Vendors by Honoring Its Commitment to Legalize Street Vending

By Doug Smith, Public Counsel Staff Attorney

The L.A. Street Vendor Campaign holds a press conference outside city hall in December, 2016

By now you’re probably aware of a disturbing video showing an angry pedestrian confronting and destroying a food cart operated by an elotero working in Hollywood. That elotero, Benjamín Ramírez, is one of the tens of thousands of people who work as street vendors across the city. In the course of his daily work, Benjamín’s equipment (his livelihood) was violently thrown to the ground during an altercation.

This video is difficult to watch. But the sad reality is that these types of encounters are all too common. Whether captured on a viral video or endured alone, these incidents are devastating and harrowing experiences for vendors. And these are not isolated events. Harassment of vendors is part of a broader legal framework that has been unjustly degrading the work of many Angelenos over many years.

A member of the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign speaks to the L.A. City Council in Dec, 2016

Street vending has been completely illegal in the city of Los Angeles for decades. Earlier this year, thanks to tireless organizing, advocacy and strong vendor leadership, the City Council voted to decriminalize sidewalk vending. This is a huge step forward. But decriminalization is not the same as legalization. As it stands today, vending is still prohibited on every square inch of city sidewalk and park space. That is not an exaggeration. There is literally not a single opportunity for a vendor like Benjamín to formalize his operation in the City of LA.

This sends a message. If a society expresses its values through its laws, then LA is collectively saying that street vending is illegitimate. Our current law sends the message that vendors who build a business are inferior entrepreneurs. Our current law sends the message that workers who vend to provide for their family after being shut out of the formal economy are criminals. Our current law sends the message that vendors who sell healthy food in food desert communities or offer culturally significant items not available in mainstream retail have no right to our public space. Our current law devalues an entire sector of the economy that is comprised primarily of low-income people, immigrants and people of color.

When laws delegitimize and dehumanize, people are emboldened to do the same. That’s part of what we see in this video. The harassment of an elotero in Hollywood is the tip of the spear of a whole system that reinforces exclusion and perpetuates unequal rights to public space.

Incredibly, the community has responded to this injustice with an outpouring of support. The LA Street Vendor Campaign has set-up a GoFundMe page, to help struggling vendors like Benjamín. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had raised over $19,000 from hundreds of individual donors. A rally is planned for Thursday evening to call attention to the threats facing thousands of vendors working across the city. Hundreds of community members have been finding ways to support and show solidarity.

As the community steps up to support one elotero, our elected leaders can do the same for all vendors. The City Council returned from summer recess this week, and they are slated to finally consider a permit program that would legalize and regulate sidewalk vending in the coming months. We need this hearing to be scheduled ASAP, and we need each councilmember to commit to legalization.

So please support Benjamín. And support your local vendor. But please also call your councilmember and urge them to adopt a street vending permit program as soon as possible. This is an opportunity to create a safe and authorized environment for all vendors, who have operated in the shadows of the underground economy for far too long. The City Council has committed to this change in principle. Now it is time for them to back-up their words with action.

City Council Directory available HERE.

Doug Smith is a staff attorney in Public Counsel’s Community Development Project. He has helped to support the LA Street Vendor Campaign for many years.

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