Fighting for respect in Queens

May 28, 2010

NEW YORK--Shouting "This is not Arizona," more than 100 street vendors, day laborers and supporters bravely marched to the 115th Precinct in Queens on May 16 in the latest step by immigrant workers to oppose police harassment.

The protest was called after two police officers beat and arrested Ecuadorian ice cream vendor Mariela Lucero on May 1, purportedly for not paying tickets on time. Police routinely ticket vendors between $200 and $1,000 without clearly explaining why. They've recently arrested several vendors without cause right in front of their children.

"We are on the bottom of the ladder, we're standing up, and that's why it's so important that all of you are here supporting us, because your fight is our fight," José Pérez told the crowd. "Another world is possible." Pérez, a bookseller, has been organizing street vendors near Roosevelt Avenue and Junction Boulevard over the past few months.

As they were returning from an immigrant rights protest in Manhattan, vendors and day laborers from the recently formed Independent Workers' Movement received a call about the arrest of Lucero and two others. They quickly mobilized 30 people--mainly vendors' families--in front of the precinct, where policed shoved them out after refusing to answer any of their questions.

A few days later, a police officer handed out a new round of tickets, telling vendors, "Here are some more tickets so you can keep marching."

While fear of the police is real, these tactics have made people angrier rather than intimidating them. Vendors voted to march straight to the precinct, rejecting the more cautionary position of experienced activists. In the end, more than 20 day laborers turned up at the event, despite this group's vulnerability to police harassment.

And when police tried to shut down one speaker after he called for the people to arrest the "pigs," the crowd defended him and forced the officers to let him continue. Day laborer organizer Roberto Meneses pointed out afterward, "The rank and file was ahead of us leadership this time. That is what is so important about our movement--we do not wait for anyone to organize for us, but rather organize independently and democratically, from the base."

VENDORS AREN'T the only people who are refusing to take police abuse lying down. On April 30, the LGBTQ Equality Coalition of Queens, Make the Road NY and Queer Rising organized a forum titled "Building Bridges: LGBTQ Community and Police Relations in Jackson Heights."

Some 50 people gathered to hear speaker after speaker testify about personal experiences being brutalized, harassed and falsely arrested on Roosevelt Avenue, a center of gay, lesbian and transgender nightlife in Queens.

The event had more urgency after the brutal murder of an immigrant trans woman, Amanda González-Andújar, who was strangled in her apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. This incident followed public remarks by police who openly admitted that they arrest any transwoman that they see walking down the street at night, because they "know" that she's a prostitute.

Both from the podium and the audience, transwomen told of being arrested for "prostitution" simply for walking down the street. Winnie Padilla, a transwoman, said that police asked her to show them her breasts or have sex with them in exchange for not being arrested. Paola spoke of her recent arrest, in which an undercover cop simply offered to buy her a drink at a bar and then arrested her for prostitution.

Another man described being falsely accused of pimping his friend and then having his arrest jeopardize his immigration status. Another transwoman mourned her compañeras who have been sent back to their countries to die of AIDS, where services aren't as available as they are in New York.

The highlight of the night came when José Pérez spoke about the experience of vendors, stressed the importance of solidarity since we are all fighting the same enemy, and urged forum attendees to bring more people to the next event to make our movement stronger.

Pérez's attendance at the forum followed the LGBTQ Equality of Queens' endorsement of and visible presence at a previous 150-person march by the Independent Workers' Movement down Roosevelt on April 18.

Many attendees similarly connected the police's treatment of gay people to Arizona SB 1070. One man said, "We need to dialogue with the police first, but with what is happening in Arizona, we have to stop this from becoming a police state by any means necessary, even if this means another Stonewall."

It's no secret that police harass transwomen in particular in this area, but hearing everyone relate their experiences was both validating to those involved and inspired everyone to keep organizing.

A week later, some of us accompanied Paola to her court hearing, where a lawyer who spoke no Spanish and had no interpreter told us, "Almost everyone in this room was picked up for the same reason as you were--for not looking or being dressed in the 'right' way and walking in a particular area."

The only option in these cases is to sign up for a rehabilitation program in exchange for eventually getting the charges dropped--even though many women (trans and non) have nothing to be "rehabilitated" for in the first place. In addition, a second arrest by a vindictive cop during the probationary period could land them prison time.

A minute in that courtroom demonstrates why prosecuting people for prostitution--while johns are never arrested, of course--is clearly just a way to criminalize poor and working-class women of all races, genders and immigration statuses.

FOLLOW-UP actions are being organized by both groups. The Independent Workers' Movement continues to meet, and eventually aims to call a popular assembly of social movements across the city. The LGBTQ Coalition has a general meeting to decide next steps on May 26. E-mail [email protected] for more information.

What's behind these attacks that have been increasing over the last couple years? As Pérez points out, "With the economic collapse, they are going after the weakest link, and that is us." While New York state aggressively tickets street vendors, it refuses to consider a millionaire tax, which could immediately solve the budget crisis.

"That's why my goal is to unite with the small businesses in the area who see us as enemies," said Pérez. "They are also fighting against landlords who charge them exorbitant rates while the big corporations get away with big bonuses."

Meanwhile, Operation IMPACT--a project supported by every local politician--has put 70 more police on Roosevelt Avenue in a bid to increase property values. Progressive Democrat José Peralta openly admitted at a candidates' forum, "We need the police to keep homeowners in the area."

The criminalizing of immigrant workers and LGBT people is also an attempt to encourage working-class New Yorkers to focus hatred on one other in the wake of increased joblessness and collapsing social services.

As the murder of González-Andújar and another recent attack on an Ecuadorian man in upstate New York show, this tactic has had some success. But the solidarity that is currently being built in Queens, from the ground up, presents an alternative way of seeing things and an alternative way of fighting back against the desperate conditions and discrimination that we face in today's economy.

The harassment and violence by police against working-class people of color along Roosevelt Avenue--LGBT and straight, immigrant and native-born--is constant, encourages civilian hate crimes, and only benefits racist realtors who equate raising property values with kicking non-rich and non-white people out of the neighborhood.

The more we stand together, the harder it will be to intimidate us and the easier, eventually, to win full equality for all.

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