Grocery Cart Entrepreneur – Guerilla Commerce by Lou Cespedes
In advertising, the term “guerilla marketing” is used to denote marketing campaigns that exist outside the norm of traditional mediums like radio, print, or television. The power of guerilla marketing is that it is ‘free’ from the constraints and costs of using traditional platforms. We have other examples of how expressions produced within urban environments, once forbidden and rejected by institutionalized structures, become part of the mainstream. Graffiti is now considered ‘art’. Music sharing on mixtapes, CD’s and peer-to-peer platforms like Napster, revolutionized the urban music scene. Fake bags made Canal Street a tourist destination. These were all examples of ‘illicit’ activities that informed and transformed industries because they appropriated those models of resistance and innovation. Of course, there is also hip-hop culture, and who can forget the case of Dapper Dan. The word “guerilla” in Spanish means rebel fighters.
And now, to yes, Churro Lady. More example than incident, more paradigm shift than new problem, the images of NYPD handcuffing a poor immigrant woman – a street food vendor by the name of Elsa – inside the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn has become a bellwether. For the blind, short of memory, and the garden variety tight-ass politician or (ahem) journalist, the answer to any expression of resistance is curiously – enforcement. The black and brown community has seen this movie before. This is to not to say that enforcement is not necessary, but rather that the employment of humiliation and enforcement is not equal when directed toward us.
What is overlooked in this retail (pun intended), sadly, is an American story. It is a story of hard work, adversity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, innovation, survival, and a story about institutional violence, punishment, judgement, social mores, rules, hygiene, and about NYC Inc. – never too big to fail. Babylon comes to mind.
The central issue of informal vending, and other forms of guerrilla commerce, is that they rock the foundations of our organized physical environment, throwing in peril the power structures that profit. Simultaneously they provide a direct benefit to a consumer segment, whether it is price, convenience, or uniqueness. What is absolutely true is this: people are buying churros. Azucar!
In the fog of Churro Lady’s arrest and subsequent protests, we should underscore that food-truck vendors, like my friend Chris Martin of Cmarty’s Jerk Chicken, have been at the forefront of these struggles. You may recall Speaker Quinn was a cult hero for attempting to ease fines on bagel truck-vendors that provide coffee to millions of New Yorkers every day. Now let’s explore the opposite of this reality; in E. Flatbush I cannot find a cup of coffee within a mile of my house. I would kill for a bagel cart on Nostrand during the week. Why isn’t there a coffee shop? It’s 5k a month to rent a 15ft x15ft storefront; that means selling 208 cups of coffee a day at $1.00 just to cover rent. Insert food street vendor here!
Ironically, beyond all this nonsense about illegal vending, a sinister mythical figure known as “the hipster” is providing formulas and solutions. Black communities should take note! It’s important to understand that when we speak of informal commerce, what is often critiqued is order and aesthetic presentation rather than law or financial fact. For example, for years there has been a roaming food event called Smorgasburg. Originating in Williamsburg, it is a “food flea market” that works to provide refuge to informal food vendors by contracting spaces and acquiring permits third party it then “rents” to vendors. These are vendors that circumvent rules and caps by entering into agreements where underutilized spaces are temporarily converted into open air food halls. Private stakeholders lease those spaces which otherwise are not profit producing. It works! No NYPD, no harassment, no questions. How? Presentation meets guerilla commerce – in a culture controlled by mostly white rule breakers that have (to their credit) consolidated support from the business community and managed to create a tourist industry that makes the city and stakeholders lots and lots of dollars. That’s how!
Dapper Dan’s crime was he’s black and that LVMH wasn’t getting paid. He’s now in partnership with Gucci. The takeaway here is the opportunities we are missing as consumers, investors, and taxpayers, when the city fails to provide structures for our immigrant and informal entrepreneurs to succeed. Organizations like (CACCI) The Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that are supposed to look out for the interests and success of these nascent entrepreneurs, are MIA. Criminalizing these vendors is not only dumb, it’s also quintessentially “American” (if your black or brown). But that’s all right; we fight on! In the end it is up to us, in our own community, to decide if we want to give our creativity and labor to the power structures that informality threatens. And this transcends commerce. It touches every aspect of our lives; personal wealth, independence, and criminal justice.
Churro Lady has a name. Her name is, Elsa. She is a human being with dreams. She’s no different than many black men whose lives have been destroyed by the criminal justice system for selling pot. My my! How quickly times change, no? Now pot is a multibillion-dollar industry, and black folk who once controlled its distribution, are left out of the business. We’re fighting for expunged records while white people are raking in millions.
Enforcement is never an answer, it is only a parenthesis; it is the containment of an opportunity that powers are unable to exploit or wrest from the hands of their subjects. Enforcement exists only because creativity is an alternative that always leads to freedom, if not earned, taken. This, my friends, is the American way.