When Genesis Lemus woke up yesterday on a friend’s couch just a block away from where she was harassed by police two years ago, the 17-year-old wanted two things: blueberry pancakes and to speak about her harrowing experience with the D.C. police.
She was first up to testify at the Metropolitan Police Department’s oversight hearing Thursday, and had been awake until midnight rehearsing her statement. Genesis wanted to raise awareness about the hostility she, her family, and other street vendors regularly receive from D.C. police. She was hoping to help move the needle on D.C. Council action on street vendor reform. But just as Genesis was preparing to share her story, she learned that police officers were harassing her mother near 14th Street NW.
Street vending is illegal in D.C., punishable by fines of up to $500. Street vendors, many of whom sell pupusas, taquitos, or other food staples from their home countries, as well as clothes and water, are mainstays in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights. They are excluded workers, which makes them ineligible to receive pandemic funds or unemployment benefits. Unlike gig economy jobs that don’t require a license, street vendors are criminalized when they fail to get past the hurdles to attain costly vending licenses. For some vendors, particularly in Ward 1, English isn’t their first language, which makes it tough to jump through the vending licensing hoops and may create confusion during interactions with police or officials from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Some advocacy groups are stepping up to create an economic lifeline for the community. On Wednesday, Vendedores Unidos launched its partnership venture with Beloved Community Incubator to bring United Food Cooperative, a new catered meal service owned and operated by indigenous chefs, to the District.
Still, co-ops can only do so much. A systemic approach that would help all D.C. street vendors requires Council action, advocates say. In its 2021 report, the D.C. Police Reform Commission recommended that the Council decriminalize street vending, noting that most vendors are Black and Brown residents who disproportionately face jail time and live in constant fear of the police.
“The [police’s] attitude, … their hatred towards us—I don’t know why they hate the street vendors so much,” Genesis tells City Paper.
Genesis was scheduled to testify at 9:30 a.m. But minutes prior, her mother, Ana Lemus, called her sobbing. The police were threatening to arrest her and another street vendor, Tity Bangura. The two women, both immigrants, became friends when they started working at the corner of 14th and Irving streets Northwest years ago. They used to share the spot, but COVID times were tough, space was scarce. Their squabble about space on Thursday morning attracted the attention of two D.C. police officers who regularly patrol the area.
Her mother’s call brought back painful memories of her experience with the police at age 15. She had been helping her mother sell plantain chips and atol de elote, a corn- and masa-based hot drink, from a cart. She had brought along her 8-year-old brother, Byron. An officer snatched Byron after threatening to call the Child and Family Services Agency. Genesis lunged to free her brother, who was struggling to pull away. Police pushed the teen to the ground, and she twisted her knee.
A social media firestorm followed after a bystander captured part of the scene on video. Activists and Ward 1 residents reignited calls for street vendor reform. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced a bill in 2020 to create designated zones where sidewalk vendors can legally operate and formalize the street vendor economy, but the Council failed to pass it.
Nadeau reintroduced the bill last February, but it’s still waiting for committee hearings before it reaches the full Council. Another bill that would decriminalize street vending and has support of nine councilmembers is also awaiting a committee hearing.
A staffer for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has said the bills likely won’t come up for a hearing in the Committee of the Whole until after the budget is finalized in late May.
Genesis says she was taken to Children’s National Hospital and received physical therapy after the physical encounter with police in 2019. She says she still can’t play soccer or skate, two of her favorite hobbies. She stopped therapy to help her mother work during COVID.
“I don’t go to the corner store I used to sell in front of because it still brings back all the old memories of being crushed to the ground by the police,” she said in her testimony. It took her three months to even step outside her home.
Yesterday, as her mother’s phone call brought the panic crashing back, Genesis thought about rushing to 14th Street NW. But her friend and organizing director at Beloved Community Incubator, Megan Macaraeg, encouraged her to stay and testify.
With her nerves soothed by an orange cat named Diego, who Genesis calls Garfield, and by Macaraeg, who sat beside her on the couch, Genesis told her story.
“Since the police has had years of harassing the street vendors and hurting the street vendors, that day I decided to stand up for myself,” she told the committee. “I was gonna stand up for myself because the police had been hurting the streets since I was a little girl. I remember all the times that certain police officers would follow [my mom] all the way home to make sure she got that $300 ticket. I remember all the times that … we would have to get our cart and run and how bad it made me feel and how my mom would sometimes cry.”
After Genesis’ and Macaraeg testified, Macaraeg drove them to 14th Street NW to see her mother. As they walked over from the parking lot, Genesis struggled to speed up.
“We’re there … But we couldn’t go very fast because she’s still limping [from] when the police hurt her three years ago,” Macaraeg tells City Paper. “I have to walk slow. And I’m 53. And she’s 17.”
While Genesis calmed her mother, Macaraeg took Bangura, a member of Vendors United, into the nearby Panda Express. Rather than de-escalate the skirmish between Bangura and Ana Lemus, police officers were “puffed up,” periodically touching their gun holsters, and threatening to arrest the street vendors, all Black and Brown women, Macaraeg recalls.
They set up Macaraeg’s laptop at a table inside Panda Express and waited for Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, to call Bangura to testify. Minutes before Bangura was set to describe her 11 arrests for street vending, the officers followed her inside the restaurant.
Officers told Bangura to move or risk arrest. Macaraeg explained that Bangura was preparing to testify at a Council hearing about the same behavior officers were displaying, but police didn’t let up.
In a 22-second cell phone video, and a partial recounting of the incident in an email to Allen and Nadeau, Macaraeg captures the moment: The two police officers surround Bangura while a DCRA worker makes eye contact with the Sierra Leone native. “Tity, let me show you where your [vending] table can go,” the DCRA representative says softly. “Thank you!” Bangura exclaims. She walks outside to move her table from the sidewalk to the grass.
“You want to come out, with the phone?” a police officer asks Macaraeg. “You can’t be threatening her with arrest,” Macaraeg replies. She turns back to their laptop. “No. I’m talking to a councilmember right now.”
At the MPD hearing, Executive Director of DC Justice Lab Patrice Sulton slammed Allen and the rest of the Council for failing to pass police reform legislation. Fourteen months into the current two-year Council period, Allen’s judiciary committee still hasn’t moved on such bills, Sulton claimed.
“Is it really so unfair to judge lawmakers by the laws that they make, not by the number of meetings or speeches or newsletters, not by you, quote calling it out unquote, as you said in your opening statements?” Sulton said in her testimony. “Not by your good intentions or your broad smile. This Council period is in fact the least effective this committee has been in my entire career.”
Sulton said many suspect Allen hasn’t moved on police reform bills because he’s “scared to mark up anything before the election,” or he’s “scared to mark up anything unless it’s going to be a unanimous vote,” or he’s “afraid to introduce anything before any of the advocacy groups come to a consensus first.”
“I hope you prove people wrong,” she said. “I hope you do something before June. I hope you pass a law.”
While Genesis never got those blueberry pancakes, she savored her strength in sharing her own traumatizing experiences.
“The hope of someday getting the street vendors their license, and, you know, hoping one day that police get fixed [gave me the strength today],” Genesis says.
Note: A previous post stated that atol de elote is a Mexican drink. This post has been updated to omit the reference because, while various sources trace its origins back to the atole drink in ancient communities living in Mexico, it is also a popular drink in parts of Central America.