Street vendors the heroes of Times Square drama

Ask a street vendor, and you'll hear that it's no surprise that it was guys hawking their wares who noticed a car in Times Square parked where it shouldn't have been.

Street sellers Lance Orton and Duane Jackson saw the SUV last weekend, keys in the ignition but no driver in sight. They notified police, who investigated what turned out to be a failed bomb. Since then, the vendors have been thanked by everyone from others on the street to President Barack Obama.

The attempted bombing has put a spotlight on the thousands of vendors who sell food, art, clothing and other items on city streets. They've been held up as proof of how everyday people have a role in keeping a community safe, examples of the message that's been repeated by public officials such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: If you see something, say something.

"What happened on Saturday shows the critical role that the American people play in the security of our country," Napolitano said at a news conference Tuesday.

Street sellers are well-suited to play that role, said Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center.

"Vendors are in an ideal situation to be the eyes and ears of the police because they're in the same position for long hours every day," he said.

"They know their blocks," he said. "If something is amiss, they know it."

On Wednesday, some police-vendor cameraderie was on display at the site of the attempted bombing. Duane Jackson, one of the vendors who spotted the loaded vehicle, embraced one of the officers who has long patrolled the neighborhood, and posed for a photo with him.

Tourists were treating Jackson's vending stand as a destination. Doug Pashea, visiting from Edwardsville, Illinois, with friends came over to get a photo with Jackson and express his thanks.

"He made it possible we could come here," Pashea said, looking around at bustling Times Square.

Basinski said street vendors have gotten involved in other public safety threats, albeit less high-profile ones.

They have intervened in thefts and pickpocketings, and even assaults. In December 2008, a vendor in Harlem who saw a woman being stabbed by another woman jumped in to fend off the attacker.

Because of their hours on the street, vendors "see everything first," said George Singleton, who sells T-shirts at 46th Street and Seventh Avenue.

"We see stuff before the cops do," he said.

T-shirt vendor Richard Rivera said he had told police officers about several situations that roused his suspicion.

"We're the eyes and ears of the street while we earn our living," he said. And while they've all been false alarms, that won't keep him from doing it again.

"I don't want it to be the real thing," he said.

It's what everyone in the community should be doing, said Professor Joseph Ryan, who teaches criminal justice at Pace University.

"That's what we should be trying to accomplish today in the context of homeland security," he said. "Do you want to see this nation survive? if you do, then everyone needs to be involved."

Relying solely on technology isn't enough, either, he said. Law enforcement needs more information than it provides. In the Times Square bomb attempt, the vehicle identification number had been removed from the Pathfinder's dashboard, but it was stamped on the engine, and investigators used it to find the owner of record, who told them a stranger bought it.

Basinski and the vendors said they hoped the foiled Times Square attack would help improve relations between police and street sellers. Interactions are often contentious, they said, with officers telling them to move or giving them tickets.

"Vendors are seen by the city primarily as a nuisance, they're a problem to be enforced. They are not seen as an asset," Basinski said.

"All these places out here don't want us out here," Singleton said, referring to storefront businesses that aren't always happy to have street sellers outside their venues. "I bet they want us out here now."

- AP

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