Politics, Police, Pozole: The Battle for Sunset Park

For Sonia Cortes, the battle for Sunset Park began with soup. Two years ago, after the pandemic wiped out her job as a seamstress, Ms. Cortes started selling pozole, a brothy Mexican soup, in the park, a 25-acre swath of green in southwestern Brooklyn. On a good Sunday, she could make $600 or $700. “I was able to pay my rent,” she said.

By last fall, the Sunday market had grown to more than 80 vendors, mostly immigrant women selling Mexican street food and wares to large weekend crowds. They called it Plaza Tonatiuh, after an Aztec sun god. Every Sunday, there were musicians and children’s activities; there were political education sessions, led by the market’s organizers, members of an activist group called Mexicanos Unidos, discussing Mao Zedong’s “Five Golden Rays” or Frantz Fanon’s anticolonialist “The Wretched of the Earth.”

Then last month, police and parks enforcement officers moved to shut down the market, citing community complaints and the fact that Plaza Tonatiuh did not have a permit. On Easter Sunday, dozens of officers clashed violently with vendors and organizers, who locked arms in resistance. Two people were arrested.

“The police hurt us,” said Ms. Cortes, who said she got pushed around in the fray. “They were violent toward us,” she said. “We weren’t selling, and they still took us out.” A police spokesperson said the crowd blocked efforts to reach one of the Plaza members, and someone punched a parks officer.

Without the market, Ms. Cortes said she now has $2,000 in bills she cannot pay. As she saw it, the closing of the Plaza pitted the city against some of its most vulnerable residents, who were simply trying to survive.

“They’ve taken bread off our table,” she said.

Samuel Sierra, who has been using the park for five decades, took a different view of the Plaza. Last summer, he was distributing get-out-the-vote pamphlets for the Democratic County Committee when three of the Plaza Tonatiuh organizers told him he had to leave.

“They were very aggressive,” Mr. Sierra said. “There’s a feeling like they own the area.” He added that he was not against vendors. “They have a right to prosper,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be at the expense of the community.”

In a city where shared resources are scarce, who controls public space? Is a market of 80 vendors a bootstrap response to economic hardship? Or is it a private takeover of a neighborhood park?

The neighborhood Sunset Park is home to large working-class Asian and Latino populations, bordered by Park Slope on the north and Bay Ridge on the south. The development known as Industry City, along the neighborhood’s western edge, has brought an influx of new money and tensions over gentrification. The park itself brings together all the population groups, with grassy expanses and views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan.

Clockwise from top left: A bulletin with information on Plaza Tonatiuh; fresh tortillas at a stall at the indoor Plaza location; a traditional Mexican necklace; dancing on a Saturday afternoon.

Following the Easter confrontation, Alexa Avilés, who represents Sunset Park on the City Council, called a community meeting that quickly became contentious. Vendors and organizers waved signs reading “Decriminalize Street Vendors” and “We Want Cops Out of Our Park,” and called upon elected officials to come up with a solution. Two young children started to describe being in the park during the police sweep, but they stopped in tears.

Then at a signal from Brian Garita, a founder of Plaza Tonatiuh, the vendors and organizers all walked out.

“Comrades, we said what we wanted to say,” Mr. Garita told the group outside the meeting. “There was no reason for us to stay there.”

Mr. Garita, 26, sees the Plaza as a step toward a broader radical movement. Critics say he is the problem, an outsider pursuing an ideological agenda.

Mr. Garita, who also uses the first name Leo, has a master’s degree in public administration and urban development and sustainability, and he works four days a week as a barista in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Though he said he grew up in Sunset Park, he now lives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. “I was displaced,” he said.

In the park, he is the guy with the bullhorn.

In the spring of 2020, he was working at a nonprofit organization in the Bronx when the murder of a Mexican American soldier named Vanessa Guillén at Fort Hood in Texas set off demonstrations around the country. From these demonstrations, Mr. Garita helped start Mexicanos Unidos to connect the protests over Ms. Guillén’s murder with other movements, including Black Lives Matter.

The following March, he focused on the vendors in Sunset Park, organizing them into a unified market and holding political education sessions.

“We talk about the things that are going on around us, these patterns of colonialism, gentrification, oppressor and oppressed,” said Roy Baizan, one of the organizers, who comes to the park from the Bronx.

But as the market grew, neighbors started to complain, Ms. Avilés said. Many vendors used open flames, which are banned in the park, and she said that residents objected that it was hard to pass through the market.

“Also, we started to get some vendors who felt intimidated by the tactics of the organizers,” she added. Some vendors complained that they had to pay to be part of the Plaza.

“I’m sympathetic,” said Ms. Avilés, a Democrat who belongs to the Democratic Socialists of America. “My aunt used to make clothes and we would sell them on the street. But this is public space, and there were real tensions with commandeering public space and controlling it. You can’t do that.”

Benito Bravo, who runs children’s folkloric dance performances in the park, said a Plaza Tonatiuh organizer told him last year during a Day of the Dead performance that he had to leave.

“He told me, ‘If you don’t go out, I’ll have to call my people,” Mr. Bravo said. “Thirty people came up to me saying, ‘If you don’t go, it will be problems for you.’ They were in my face, and all my kids are crying.”

During one clash with parks enforcement officers last year, Mr. Garita threw a plate of food and was charged with assault in the second degree. The charge was dismissed this month because he was not given a speedy trial.

Mr. Garita said the Plaza does not charge vendors to participate, but all had to be approved to be part of the Plaza. He made no apologies for keeping some people out of the market. But despite his vocal presence within Plaza Tonatiuh, Mr. Garita has no authority over who may or may not use the park.

“The people that we have been confrontational with have only been opportunistic people,” Mr. Garita said. “People who are electioneering, who come to the park and press these candidates that no one’s ever seen. We don’t support that type of electioneering tactic. We’ve been confrontational with people who come to promote themselves. This is a collective thing, and we have to support the whole before the parts.”

Clockwise from top left: A Plaza Tonatiuh petition asking for support; churros for sale; a T-shirt featuring Brian (Leo) Garita; bows at a vendor's stall.

Critics of the Plaza say the organizers are putting vendors — many of them undocumented immigrants — at risk, provoking clashes with law enforcement.

“They’re using these vendors to make a broader point about law enforcement, about bureaucratic processes, a whole bunch of things,” said Andrew Gounardes, the Democratic state senator whose district includes Sunset Park. “And the vendors are the ones caught in the middle.”

Edwin Rodriguez, NYC Parks’s assistant commissioner for urban park service, said that for the past two years, outreach to vendors on the permitting process has been met with aggression, particularly from several of the organizers. “From an enforcement perspective,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “the vendors have been very peaceful, while the organizers have not, playing an oversized role in crowd agitation.”

Vendors say the city’s permitting process is too onerous. The city capped the number of permits back in the 1980s, with little growth since then, said Mohamed Attia, managing director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, so most of the city’s estimated 20,000 vendors operate without the required permits or licenses. Since the pandemic, he said, the number of vendors has soared, and so has the number of tickets issued, which can carry a fine of $1,000.

On a recent Sunday, a few dozen vendors and organizers gathered in an industrial building near Sunset Park for a private version of the Plaza, with children’s activities and food. A D.J. played Latin and pop music, vendors offered food and T-shirts, and a woman led a tea-making workshop. Without the park’s crowds — or exposure to police — the gathering was more social than economic.

Blanca Nicolas and her daughter, Ariana Garcia, prepared elotes — ears of corn slathered with lime juice and mayonnaise, then sprinkled with red chili pepper and cheese — for sale to other vendors and organizers.

Ms. Nicolas said she appreciated the organizers’ political agenda. “We learn more about what we can do,” she said. And selling in the market had made her 12-year-old son more outgoing, she said.

Ms. Avilés, the City Council member, said she was working to find other places for the Plaza — maybe a closed street, maybe smaller-scale markets in different parts of the neighborhood.

Mr. Garita said he, too, was looking for other venues. But in the meantime, he was working with lawyers to expand the project to include a workers’ cooperative, and then an ad hoc credit union, or tanda. “We’re even looking ahead to seeing if we can run a candidate in Sunset Park in the future,” he said.

Ms. Cortes, with her $2,000 in unpaid bills, tried to remain optimistic. For two years, she and the other vendors had managed to survive the turmoil caused by the pandemic. Now, if they returned to the market that had sustained them, they risked arrest or confrontation. Yet they needed the income to stay afloat.

“We’re going to go back to selling,” she said. “God willing.”

Jo Corona and Lexi Parra contributed reporting.

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