As Summer Heats Up, The NYC Parks Enforcement Patrol Targets Vendors And Artists Trying To Make A Living
The vibrant culture and jovial atmosphere of New York City’s parks are once again under attack from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
NYC’s parks have long been a site of class struggle. From the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988 to the New York City Police Department violently enforcing a curfew in Washington Square Park last year, on one side is mostly poor and working-class park goers, and on the other side, local moneyed interests and cops. The struggle has usually taken the form of NYPD cops in riot gear attacking regular park-goers considered to be nuisances by local businesses and affluent residents. But this year, the NYC Parks Enforcement Patrol, the Parks’ Department law enforcement unit, has taken the lead in harassing park-goers around the city. And, according to copwatchers and regular park-goers, there’s been a noticeable uptick in harassment in parks across NYC as the summer has begun to heat up.
“It has stepped up dramatically. It’s like jaywalking. Like the equivalent of jaywalking in New York City. They’re enforcing every tiny law,” said copwatcher Steve Cruz, who often frequents Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park to record police activity. “They did step it up and I’ve been doing a lot of videos on it and sending it to the Mayor’s office and showing him the zero tolerance bullshit causing disruption.”
The NYC Parks Enforcement Patrol, who are also known as PEP, are basically NYC Parks cops. There are reportedly less than 300 NYC Parks cops throughout the city, and unlike the NYPD, they don’t carry guns. But they are armed with batons, pepper spray, and handcuffs, and they can ticket or arrest you. They also celebrated their 40th anniversary in April where Mayor Eric Adams praised them for “[playing] a critical role in keeping us safe, protecting our natural resources, and allowing everyone to enjoy our parks.” Though they have a history of cracking down on street performers, artists, vendors, and activists in parks, they usually act in concert with and as support for the NYPD. Lately though, they’ve been doing bad all by themselves.
Park-goers in Washington Square Park are some of the most common targets of harassment by NYC Parks cops. On June 15, copwatchers recorded NYPD cops ticketing a weed vendor and making her pack up her stuff and leave the park. Days later, on June 18, copwatchers documented NYC Parks cops harassing vendors and ramping up enforcement of minor park rules, including telling artists that their art couldn’t touch the ground.
“The park cops, this year, have mostly taken a back seat and haven’t been doing much until two weekends ago,” Peter Chinman, a 5-year regular park-goer and vendor at Washington Square Park better known as The Park Poet, told Copwatch Media on June 28.
“I guess they got orders to start enforcing things against the vendors, and they have this set of seemingly very arbitrary rules about what you can and can’t sell in the park. For instance, you can’t sell clothes that you make unless they’re knit, but you can sell knit objects. Or I watched them go up to a jewelry maker who had all this handmade jewelry, and they told her that she couldn’t sell any of the earrings but she could sell the keychains that she had. And it’s just like these totally bogus, made-up rules.”
The copwatcher who runs the Washington Square Park SOS account on Instagram, a page increasingly popular among regular park-goers that keeps track of police and sexual predators in the park, has also noticed more intense harassment by NYC Parks cops.
“From what I have heard, the park cops are receiving more pressure from [NYPD’s] 6th precinct, and they are bringing back the most aggressive, corrupt, and dirty ones, and there are more now,” she told Copwatch Media. “Because of people protesting and because people do not like the surveillance, little by little they are [decreasing the amount of] NYPD, and they are bringing more park cops. To the point where you see even like 10 park cops in the park harassing and being extremely aggressive.”
On June 19, along with harassing vendors and homeless folks, Cruz recorded NYC Parks cops threatening street performer/musician Ryan Simpson with arrest for singing and playing Khia’s song “My Neck, My Back” on his accordion. Cruz says that NYC Parks cops told Simpson that he couldn’t curse while singing. Simpson had to plead with the NYC Parks cops to let him play one last song before packing up his stuff and leaving the park. Simpson’s Instagram page includes three posts of him performing songs, including “My Neck, My Back” and Cardi B and Megan the Stallion’s song “WAP”, in Washington Square Park in late April and throughout May with seemingly no problems.
“They are just trying to find a way to keep the people out, and because the park cops have the power to give tickets, they are just giving tickets like crazy,” the copwatcher who runs the Washington Square Park SOS account said. “It’s mind-blowing what is happening in the park. The park cops are just going nuts, and they are insulting the vendors. They are like literally telling them that they need to pack up, and they put themselves in front of the vendors, making them leave. When they pick on you, you are fucked.”
Washington Square Park isn’t the only place where NYC Parks cops have increased their enforcement of minor rules.
A video recorded by copwatchers and onlookers show NYC Parks cops in Coney Island during the Mermaid Parade on June 18 harassing a woman selling churros, throwing the food she was selling into a garbage bag, and then taking her cart from her as a crowd of angry onlookers boo and chant “Shame!” and “Quit your job!” at the officers.
On June 19 in Union Square, Cruz recorded NYC Parks cops giving street performer/ventriloquist Nigel Dunkley a hard time over allegedly using a speaker during his free puppet show. Dunkley, who has been performing on the street for about 10 years, told Copwatch Media that he goes to Union Square about once every two weeks. On this particular day, he was doing his usual show when an NYC Parks cop approached him and told him to turn his speaker off. Dunkley calmly obliged and turned his speaker off. The officer then asked for his ID, which surprised Dunkley. He had already turned off the speaker, so Dunkley didn’t see why he needed to provide his ID. The NYC Parks cop kept asking for Dunkley’s ID, said he was going to write him a summons, and was even about to call for the NYPD until people, including Cruz, gathered around and came to Dunkley’s defense and helped him move his stuff to another location. Dunkley says he had never experienced this kind of enforcement before, even from NYPD cops.
“June 19 was the very first time I was told to take off my speaker,” Dunkley told Copwatch Media. “[NYPD] cops, when they see me performing, they walk past me, or they look at me, they laugh, they smile, but these park rangers want to enforce themselves and say ‘oh, you’re not allowed to do this.’ That’s why it caught me off guard. That’s why I reacted the way I reacted.”
As far as why this increase in harassment and enforcement is happening, copwatchers and park-goers point to Eric Adams’ desire for zero tolerance policing and affluent local residents’ desire to see poor and working class park-goers driven out of the park. A Gothamist piece in March detailed how groups of well-to-do, mostly white local residents like the Washington Square Park Conservancy pushed the Parks Department and the NYPD to crack down on the activities of poorer, more racially diverse park-goers.
“I’m not entirely clear on the relationship between the [Washington Square Park] Conservancy and the park cops but there seems to be some sort of back and forth there where they’re able to sort of set park policing directives,“ Chinman said. “I think park neighbors want a sanitized, rich, white version of the park and have the power and money to try to enact that.”
Cruz, a veteran copwatcher, agrees that wealthy residents play a part in the uptick in enforcement, but he also emphasizes new mayor Eric Adams’ role.
“The reason why I think all this is happening is Mayor Eric Adams,” Cruz told Copwatch Media. “Since he can’t re-enact stop and frisk, now he’s telling his officers to approach every little violation. Anything that can be written as a summons by an officer, approach it with zero tolerance. You ask them nicely once. If people give you shit about it, they immediately lock you up. That’s what’s been going on.”
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