Sunset Park Vendors Fight Back Against Harassment By NYC Parks Cops

Organizers and vendors in Sunset Park’s Plaza Tonatiuh have experienced increasing harassment from NYC Parks Enforcement Patrol. So they fought back with solidarity and community power.

Plaza Tonatiuh is a space in Sunset Park where vendors, performers, and organizers gather every Sunday. (Ashoka Jegroo)

If you’ve ever had the chance to walk through Brooklyn’s Sunset Park on a Sunday, you might’ve had the pleasure of running into Plaza Tonatiuh, a space inside the park where, Latinx (mostly Mexican) vendors, artists, musicians, and organizers get together to sing, dance, sell food and art, and build community.

But recently, much like what has been happening in parks throughout the city, Plaza Tonatiuh has seen increased attention from the NYC Parks Enforcement Patrol, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s law enforcement unit. In response, the organizers and vendors who put together Plaza Tonatiuh have resisted recent attempts at harassment and intimidation and are preparing themselves for any further possible escalation by the NYC Parks cops. On June 28, they held a demonstration at local City Council Member Alexa Avilés’ office asking that she stand with them by helping fend off harassment by the NYC Parks cops and helping keep the bathrooms open longer as well as getting the trash in the park collected more frequently.

The Plaza originally began in March 2021 after organizers with Mexicanos Unidos noticed individual vendors were getting harassed by NYC Parks cops in the park. Organizers got a number of vendors together to create Plaza Tonatiuh and essentially protect each other from harassment with their numbers and solidarity. It originally started with 8 vendors and has grown even larger since then.

Plaza Tonatiuh started with just 8 vendors in 2021 and has since grown much larger. (Ashoka Jegroo)

But recently, the harassment by NYC Parks cops has picked up again.

“This year compared to last year, our first Plaza [of the year] was in March, there was slowly but surely an increasing police presence,” Angeles, a vendor and organizer with Mexicanos Unidos, told Copwatch Media. “The park rangers began being very friendly with us the first couple of months, but in the past two months, they’ve been much more hostile.”

Angeles, who sells CBD treats and print designs, recounted a recent incident where a female vendor was trying to use the park bathroom right as it was being closed and got into an argument with the NYC Parks cop who was closing it. The officer then threatened to call the NYPD on the entire Plaza.

Angeles, a vendor/organizer, sells CBD products and print designs at her table at Plaza Tonatiuh. (Ashoka Jegroo)

Organizers posted footage on the Plaza Tonatiuh Instagram page of another incident that occurred on June 19. An NYC Parks cop tried to harass one of the vendors at the Plaza over a permit. The officer then faced push back from other folks at the Plaza and threatened to call the NYPD. After the organizers and vendors stood their ground, the NYC Parks cop then got back in their vehicle and drove away.

“[The NYC Parks cops] were trying to start some shit with one of the vendors and we immediately formed a human barrier with all the vendors,” Angeles said of the incident. “This park ranger got really, really upset. For the most part, when something similar has happened, they just turn away, they let it go, it’s not a big deal, they get it. This time, they called [the NYPD] in front of us.”

Though the officer eventually drove away, the organizers and vendors were on high alert for the rest of the day, with many vendors then having to keep their stuff packed up just in case the NYPD did end up arriving.

This led the organizers and vendors to hold a demonstration at Council Member Avilés’ nearby office on June 28 in order to get Avilés to rhetorically and concretely support the Plaza and thus provide the space with a little extra protection from law enforcement before things got even worse.

“The spark really was honestly just the fact that we’ve been feeling more and more aggressive enforcement,” Leo, an organizer with Mexicanos Unidos, told Copwatch Media. “We wanted to demonstrate before anything bad happened whereas other folks like to demonstrate after some tragedy hits or something like that. So we wanted to kind of be preemptive about it.”

Avilés told Copwatch Media that she supports Plaza Tonatiuh. “I shared publicly how I appreciate and support so much of what we see at the plaza,” she said via email. “We see art, we see dancing, we see people generating a livelihood in community and this is amazing. There is so much to celebrate.”

Vendors at Plaza Tonatiuh sell a variety of products and community members of all ages visit the Plaza. (Ashoka Jegroo)

The Council Member also stated that, after the demo, she “publicly committed to advocating for extended bathroom service” and “made a commitment to advocating for increased trash service,” which she noted has been made worse by underinvestment in the Parks Department.

As for the harassment by NYC Parks cops, Avilés said she does “not advocate for enforcement and criminalization policies that have long hurt communities of color and working class New Yorkers,” but she also admitted that she couldn’t directly do much about it since “at the end of the day, they report to [Mayor Eric Adams’] administration, not to me.”

“But that’s not to say we can’t find creative ways to address the issues we’re seeing in Sunset Park across the board with the increased usage we’ve seen since the pandemic,” she continued. “That’s why I offered to meet with Plaza organizers to discuss their issues and work to find solutions.”

Community members gathered to watch performances in Plaza Tonatiuh during Día de los Muertos in 2021. (Ashoka Jegroo)

For the organizers and vendors though, regardless of whether they have the support of local elected officials, they will continue to do everything they can to protect Plaza Tonatiuh along with the growing community solidarity and power that has come from the Plaza.

“The more organized, the bigger this grows, the more of a threat we become. And I think we also made it known that we’re not just here to get rich or purely vend,” Angeles said. “We’re here to organize and we’re here to improve conditions of this community in any way we can. And the Plaza can contribute to that with improving the conditions of this park for this community.”

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