Video of Handcuffed Churro Vendor Exposes How Increased Police Presence Needs to be Accompanied by Dialogue with Community

Elsa selling Churros BeLatina
A woman was arrested at the Myrtle-Wyckoff station Monday after police caught her slinging a cart full of deep-fried, sugar-coated churros. (Rafael Martinez)

On Friday, New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority police officers cuffed an unlicensed vendor named Elsa for selling churros at a subway station in Brooklyn, drawing the ire of the community and allies of working-class immigrants. While selling churros or any food item on a subway platform is illegal, the presence of the “churro ladies” is generally welcomed by subway riders and certainly isn’t something that would reasonably merit putting someone in handcuffs.

The incident was caught in a heartrending video taken by a bystander that went viral, showing a few officers standing around a crying woman named Elsa, who was trying to keep possession of her cart of churros. Elsa immigrated to the city from Ecuador and reportedly has been selling churros in the neighborhood for several years. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that nothing improper had taken place between the officers and Elsa. “The facts are she was there multiple times and was told multiple times thats not a place you can be, and its against the law and its creating congestion,” he explained, per the New York Times.

Of course, people who regularly take public transit in the city would probably argue that service delays, rather than churro vendors, are a bigger source of congestion. There is a clear disconnect between the lived experiences of the community and what city and state officials hope to accomplish through an increased presence of police officers in the subway.

State Senator Julia Salazar, who represents the district where Elsa was cuffed for selling churros, tweeted in support of a rally at the station on Monday. “[No] one in our community should have to endure over-policing and harassment.” She invited her followers to join her at the rally where she wanted to redirect the city officials attention toward substantially improving the subway system rather than using taxpayer money to simply police it. Additionally, she called for “creating opportunities for vendors to work free from harassment.” State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who represents parts of the Bronx, also emphasized that state and transit officials should be focusing their efforts to reform the system, adding on her own twitter feed that Elsa’s arrest was not an “isolated incident.”

Sofia Newman, the bystander who had taken the video of Elsa, wrote on her social media in the original post that the situation was a clear abuse of power. “No matter what the law says, there is no reason why that many officers needed to encircle, demean, and police the poverty of that woman of color.” Apparently they had done more than police her churro cart, mocking her for her inability to speak English. Speaking to Gothamist last week and referring to the city’s crackdown on fare evaders, Newman expanded upon her interpretation of the churro incident, explaining, “They’re essentially policing poverty is what they’re doing, they’re trying to stop fare evasion, harassing people who can’t afford $2.75, and who are trying to make a living selling food in the subway stations.”