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‘Protect Eloteros:’ People Are Arming Street Vendors with Pepper Spray

12:10 AM PDT on July 26, 2020

Communities are arming street vendors with pepper spray to defend themselves against the recent uptick in violence and harassment against them around Los Angeles County.

It has come down to this.

This reality comes nearly eight months after the city of L.A. legalized street vending, which was a result of a decade worth of fighting for the controversial permit system that legally allows street vendors to set up shop in L.A.’s sidewalks. L.A. Taco reported one of the first of what would prove to be a trend of assaults against local street vendors back in March, when a video of an unsuspecting elotera placed in a chokehold was posted on Instagram.

That violent incident, along with the string of recorded incidents ranging from the recent frutero in Canyon Country to a paletero in downtown L.A. has prompted some community watchdogs to step up.

“Pa que se protejan, oiga. Esto es pepper spray, si lo necesitan” says a man in a video posted by community account @44vibe on July 9th. The post shows an individual buying an entire wall of pepper spray from a small shop and the man going around and handing them away to street vendors while they worked. The street vendors accept and share their gratitude. The video was also posted on the account @ChicanosWorldwide.

In another video posted by the Long Beach community page @thehoodsanta, another man is seen handing an unopened package of pepper spray to a raspado and esquite vendor in Paramount. The vendor appears to also look surprised at first and accepts the gift.

The constant in these two videos and other ones posted as Stories on Instagram showing similar acts is a call to action to fellow community members: “Protect street vendors.” This ‘hood-born movement attracted the attention of legendary L.A. graffiti veteran, OG BIG SLEEPS, who created a t-shirt bearing the powerful words: PROTECT ELOTEROS, in his signature hand style. The proceeds went to his new street vendor-based charity.

These videos have all been featured on the Instagram account @FoosGoneWild via their Stories. The account and its 700k followers have taken a stand against violence towards street vendors.

Years of advocacy for street rights

“Street vendors have worked for years to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. Despite the milestones they have achieved, they continue to be forgotten,” says Rudy Espinoza, the Executive Director for Inclusive Action and one of the street vending community’s biggest advocates. His organization provides microloans for street vendors and has been fighting for their rights to legalization since the early days.

“The violence they are experiencing is a result of the failure to invest in them, their businesses, and their families, Espinoza continues. We invest in enforcement, but not in affordable carts and permit access. How can we blame street vendors if they need to find their own ways to protect themselves when the City won’t?”

“It’s a great idea. As vendors, we need to defend ourselves,” says Alma Patricia Archuleta, a street vendor in South Central who sells used clothes on San Pedro and 33rd. She agrees with the notion that street vendors need to be protected. She shares with L.A. Taco via a phone call that being harassed and threatened is part of life for street vendors.

“I’ve been through a lot already and I learned to speak out and defend myself because even after calling the authorities and every number out there offering to help, nobody ever does.” She shares an instance when a houseless person threatened to burn her stand.

“People look at us like we’re less than them.”

Advocates for street vendor rights argue that Mayor Garcetti has not provided adequate protections for these frequent attacks. In his press conference on July 17th at the 14th-minute mark, he condemned the slew of viral videos and acknowledged street vendors as “some of the most vulnerable Angelenos” made up of mostly low-income, elderly, and undocumented workers. “We must keep working to make sure that our street vendors have an active role in our city’s economic present, our recovery, and our future.” He goes on to condemn the violence and that “he has instructed to LAPD to follow these cases and to make sure there is justice in our streets.”

This heightened empathy from Garcetti for street vendors comes after the Mayor was scrutinized for initially leaving out street vendors from L.A.’s Al Fresco outdoor dining flexibility program.

It’s just the ‘hood being the ‘hood

“We need to look out for L.A.’s street vendors just as we protect our kids and older parents and aunts and uncles—remember that they’re somebody’s family, too, says L.A. rapper Swifty Blue. He was the first high profile person to take a stand against these attacks on his Instagram account. When that elotera got attacked, Swifty Blue posted a video of himself and his group of friends made up of both Black and Brown offering the elotera cash and flowers. “They’re just working and you gotta stand up as a leader and address certain issues in your community.”

It’s this same responsibility to his community that has made Swifty Blue stop posting videos of these attacks as many Latinos have used the videos to make racist, offensive remarks against the Black community. “It’s tricky…but remember that we have systems of deep segregation that have worked against us both Black and Brown for so long…”

“It’s not a race issue. It’s just the ‘hood being the ‘hood. if you know better, do better.”

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