Santa Monica street vendors rally against harassment by police

Despite being one of the first areas to create a permitted vending program, Santa Monica remains a tough location for street vendors who say they face inhumane treatment.

A photo of a protestor at Santa Monica City Hall who holds up a banner calling for a police officer to leave Santa Monica. (Photo by Michael Chow)

Street vendors gathered at Santa Monica City Hall Friday afternoon to rally against police and other city officials, claiming they are increasingly facing harassment, racial profiling, criminalization and undue arrests.

The rally was organized by the Community Power Collective, a nonprofit working on educating street vendors on their rights and organizing them across Los Angeles to build a vendor-led network.

The protest was a call for action directed at the Santa Monica City Council, after a YouTube video of police arresting vendors near the pier went viral on Jan. 25, 2022. The vendors were being cited for the use of prohibited combustible fuels around the Santa Monica Pier and police officers confiscated several canisters of butane — which is highly flammable and often used as heating fuel in portable stoves.

In 2018, the SB-946 Safe Sidewalk Vending Act ordered all cities across the State of California to decriminalize sidewalk vending and gave the local authorities certain parameters to regulate sidewalk vending. To date, only 165 out of 10,000 food vendors have been able to obtain a permit in Los Angeles, according to a report produced by the UCLA School of Law Community Economic Development Clinic and Public Counsel.

One of the protest organizers was Cynthia Anderson-Barker, attorney and partner at the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. She said she has been meeting with city officials for over a year to help formulate solutions, but observed that the efforts have gone nowhere.

“Santa Monica has the most regressive and oppressive regulatory system for vendors. They decided about three weeks ago to put together a multi-faceted task force,” Anderson-Barker said.

“They did these sweeps all over Santa Monica and vendors who even had legal permits to sell had all their goods confiscated,” she said. “Then many have been handcuffed just as a form of harassment to get them to leave the area … and I believe these attacks are a bit racially motivated because these are brown folks and mostly the city of Santa Monica is white folks.”

Anderson-Barker believes organizing and protesting is the only solution.

“Santa Monica doesn’t want to look bad to the public because everyone thinks they’re so liberal, so hopefully they’re going to change their policies,” she said.

A photo of a woman from the back at a protest for street vendors with people gathered in front of her at Santa Monica City Hall.

Sergio Jimenez, a senior organizer from CPC, led the vending community across Main Street on Friday. According to Jimenez, several financial and cultural barriers prevent street vendors from obtaining permits.

He acknowledged that officers need to ensure that the vendors comply with sanitation and safety standards but he could not condone the citations by the police, which amount up to several thousand dollars. In addition to this financial burden on budgets that are already strained, he considers the criminalization that comes with the citations as the most harmful thing for the vending community, saying that it creates a cycle of disadvantage and poverty.

“The main impact of that citation is that it comes with the criminal aspect of it. So, a lot of folks are undocumented. They’re trying to get residency, citizenship, or even to buy a house,” Jimenez said. “That creates a record on their status and jeopardizes everything.”

Katie McKeon is a staff attorney at Public Counsel who has been working with the street vending campaign for nearly five years. She said Santa Monica has had a two-decade long battle for vendor rights and pointed out key issues that hinder the decriminalization of street vendors even after the passing of the SB-946 Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, in particular the lack of resources to support sidewalk vendors.

A photo of three women wearing "Community Power Collective" t-shirts at a protest for street vendors at Santa Monica City Hall.

“The sidewalk vendors have been working along the Santa Monica Pier for decades. That has just been a fixture in the city,” McKeon said. “Instead of working with the vendors to figure out how to address some very legitimate safety concerns about overcrowding along the pier, they’ve chosen to ban street vending along the pier and in the immediate vicinity.”

Street vendors are micro-entrepreneurs who often tend to pass down their businesses through the generations. George Cruz, a 26-year-old vendor, recalled his mother’s cart being overthrown and her being verbally abused by an officer from the Santa Monica Police Department recently. She has been a fruit vendor at Santa Monica Pier for 20 years. Cruz claimed that the officer even exerted force against a girl who tried to film his aggression.

Most vendors remain the main providers for their families but do not want their children to take up their work. Trinidad Ponce, a fruit vendor originally from Bellflower, expressed his hope for a brighter future for his children.

“They were born here. I hope they would not have to work the way I did,” Ponce said.

Anthony Guzman contributed translation to this report.