Q&A: Mike Dennis, Community Organizing for ELACC

We caught up with Mike Dennis, Director for Community Organizing for the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), about LA City Council's recent move to decriminalize street vending city-wide. Street vendors, community members and organizers like Dennis have been fighting for decriminalization for almost a decade now. Here's more on their successful campaign:

GDT: What happened yesterday?

MD: City Council scheduled a full vote to move forward policy that will decriminalize street vending in Los Angeles. The policy will remove misdemeanor charges that exist in the current law and aims to provide amnesty to vendors currently tripped up in the justice system. It also looks to remove infractions and directs the City Attorney to write an ordinance that creates a permit system for sidewalk vending in Los Angeles.

Because of Trump’s recent executive order, any non-legal citizen accused of infraction or misdemeanor is considered a criminal alien. So this provides a really critical piece of protection to undocumented vendors. But the truth is the outcome of the election wouldn’t have impacted the outcome of the issue if we hadn’t been already doing this work for several years leading up to November. All the way back in 2007 we started organizing street vendors. The urgency unfortunately came with a dire federal outcome, but the time is here and we were ready to strike.

GDT: Why was this such a critical victory for the street vendors personally and for the City of LA as a whole?

MD: Well there’s a lot of work ahead of us. But yesterday was so critical  because we’ve gotten this as far as we’ve ever seen it go. We’ve been organizing street vendors for 9 years and started this policy effort back in 2011.

It’s particularly significant that the policy they agreed to write up is City-wide. There was a big fight about whether it would be city-wide versus vending districts, and we sort of landed on a hybrid. It’s a City-wide policy with flexibility for neighborhoods to customize how vending activity looks. Some neighborhoods like MacArthur Park have lots of vending, and policy should support that, while other neighborhoods have little to no vending right now and don’t want it. We tried to strike a happy medium with vendors first and we’ll see where it goes.

LA has a long long history of street food culture, and a deep history of immigrants building this city, making it the melting pot that it is. Given what’s happening at the federal level, LA is rallying behind its immigrant population and embracing them. It’s unfortunate that it took something disastrous at the federal level to really galvanize and create the political will, but it’s here and we’re pleased to see it happening.

GDT: Was there a particular story or person’s experience that particularly inspired you throughout this process?

MD: There’s a lot of folks. We have a very small team of staff that have been working on this for a long time, but accompanying us have been the vendors who have really gotten us to where we are today. Vendors have been the leaders in the process. But one vendor in particular stands out to me - her name is Caridad Vasquez. She was one of the very first vendors to raise the issue of criminalization ten years ago when we were organizing in Boyle Heights. Caridad has been with us every step of the way including yesterday. After yesterday’s vote, we were debriefing with vendors outside City Hall and Caridad spoke very passionately of how much sacrifice she’s made. She came to this country undocumented, raised her family here, she’s got a lot of people relying on her. She’s been a fierce advocate and fighter, always willing to put herself on the line to speak to the press and organizing other vendors that are dealing with similar challenges to her

GDT: What would you say to small brick-and-mortar businesses who have voiced opposition to this legalization process?

MD: I think that folks need to not be so afraid focusing on the negative, but instead think outside the box of how we can create strong partnerships between brick-and-mortars and street vendors to create more vibrant and prosperous streets. We have many examples around the City of vendors working in tandem with brick-and-mortar to make sure both are thriving, and we want to scale this up. What has wound up happening is that a lot of the advocacy groups that claim to speak on behalf of small businesses are actually big business folks pushing fear-based rhetoric around street vendors. Vending is already happening all over the city, we’re trying to create policy to support something we know won’t go away one way or another. I would urge folks to really keep an open mind, sit down with street vendors, and get innovative about how we can support each other.

GDT: What kind of impact do you feel this has on a community like Downtown, which differs in ways from its surrounding areas of Boyle Heights or MacArthur Park?

MD: I think we have to wind the clock and look at Downtown historically. Street vending has always taken place in Downtown because it was a place where working class folks lived as that’s where the jobs were. As Downtown has become more developed, that has pushed some of those street vendors out of the area. But of course there’s still a huge working population Downtown. It’s complicated, but I think establishing a permit system will alleviate a lot of the concerns and will allow for a place of commerce for folks that like eating at street vendors. Everyone from the construction worker, the person working high up in an office tour, the late night bar-goer. Street vending supports lots of the needs of a healthy thriving Downtown.

GDT: What can we as a community learn from this process?

MD: LA is a deeply complex community with a lot of competing interests. So it’s really important that we’re creating spaces where we can create dialogue as much as possible without reacting. What we experienced a lot on the campaign was outright prejudice, and sometimes racism against vendors, and when you’re working a campaign with street vendors running the campaign, where there are language barrier issues, we need to slow down to make sure we’re moving together and folks are understanding and processing what will happen with policy together. For the average Angeleno, it’s really important that you’re civically engaged. If there’s something you’re concerned about, you should be engaging your local Council office or Supervisor’s office and making sure your voice is heard.

 Maria Franco has been selling fruit in Downtown's Fashion District for the past 12 years. She will no longer risk misdemeanor charges by conducting business on the sidewalk. (Image via  LA Times ).

Maria Franco has been selling fruit in Downtown's Fashion District for the past 12 years. She will no longer risk misdemeanor charges by conducting business on the sidewalk. (Image via LA Times).