I was leaving New York City’s Chinatown one day after fieldwork when a friend pointed to a subway entrance off Canal Street. ‘You’re writing about Black and Chinese stuff, right? This is a perfect example,’ they said as we descended into the station. ‘These Black men hold the emergency exit open for the Chinese aunties, who only pay them a dollar instead of using a MetroCard swipe [now worth US$2.75].’ We walked through the emergency exit, thanking the man holding the door open and putting our one-dollar bills into his outstretched cup. My friend goes out of their way to use that subway entrance to avoid paying the full fare. As anyone familiar with New York City knows, there is an expertise to knowing which subway entrances are unstaffed and available for undetected turnstile-hopping. However, particularly in Chinatown, there is a whole economy made up mostly of Black men hustling in the subway stations, assisting with fare evasion and ticket purchases in exchange for small fees. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions have been high between older Chinese people fearful of increasing anti-Asian violence and unhoused Black men, whom the media has portrayed as the face of these attacks. On the other hand, in a working-class neighbourhood like Chinatown, these illicit money-saving ventures can be sites for unlikely collaborations and even what Saidiya Hartman has called ‘revolution in a minor key’.
Hartman’s ‘The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner’ ends with descriptions of riots at a women’s reformatory in New York in the early twentieth century, but it begins with similar tales of more subtle rebellions. Through what she describes as ‘critical fabulation’, Hartman (2018: 470) recounts the life of Esther Brown, an African American woman who hated work, rebelled against marriage, and generally embraced her own pleasures and whims. Brown never wrote a radical manifesto, yet Hartman imagines her wayward political stances from things written about her alleged moral and personal failings in court and reformatory archives:
It is not surprising that a negress would be guilty of conflating idleness with resistance or exalt the struggle for mere survival or confuse petty acts for insurrection or imagine a minor figure might be capable of some significant shit or mistake laziness and inefficiency for a general strike or recast theft as a kind of cheap socialism for too fast girls and questionable women or esteem wild ideas as radical thought. (Hartman 2018: 466–67)
Hartman contrasts Brown’s small rebellions with the prevailing scholarship on radicalism from which these Black women are largely absent: ‘A revolution in a minor key was hardly noticeable before the spirit of Bolshevism or the nationalist vision of a Black Empire or the glamour of wealthy libertines, fashionable socialists, and self-declared New Negroes’ (Hartman 2018: 467). In other words, Black women’s minor revolutions—notably, criminal acts—are just as important as the much larger, more public, and more ‘respectable’ struggles against racism, capitalism, and colonialism:
For the most part, the history of Esther and her friends and the potentiality of their lives has remained unthought because no one could imagine young black women as social visionaries, radical thinkers, and innovators in the world in which these acts took place. This latent history has yet to emerge: A revolution in a minor key unfolded in the city and young black women were its vehicle. It was driven not by uplift or the struggle for recognition or citizenship, but by the vision of a world that would guarantee to every human being free access to earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations. (Hartman 2018: 470–71; emphasis in the original)
For Hartman, Black women living and loving how they wanted, acting in ways that were sometimes criminal and always criminalised expressed a more revolutionary vision than conventional efforts towards African American inclusion. In this essay, I consider the Black and Chinese people collaborating in quality-of-life crimes in Chinatown through Hartman’s theory of minor revolution to examine how criminal acts articulate ‘vision[s] of a world that would guarantee to every human being free access to earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations’.
Scholarship on Black and Asian solidarity often centres on explicit political activism. However, community ties are developed more frequently in smaller moments. This essay explores quality-of-life crimes—fare evasion and illegal street vending of counterfeit designer goods—to ask whether these minor crimes and everyday activities might be sites where people develop working-class, anti-state mutual aid.
Quality of Life
Scholars characterise ‘quality-of-life’ crimes—vandalism, turnstile-hopping, vending without a licence, loitering, etcetera—as minor offences that inevitably arise from being without income or assets, particularly in expensive urban centres. However, the shift towards what is often called ‘broken windows’ policing was one of the most important changes in both approaches to policing and understandings of ‘the socially marginal’ in the twentieth century (Vitale 2008: 1). In a 1982 Atlantic article, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson argue that middle-class fears of crime are not only of violence but also of harassment by strangers and ‘disorder’ in the streets, which police officers should work to control, even if it does not result in ‘crime’ reduction. In fact, they (now infamously) claim that ‘at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked in a kind of developmental sequence’ (Kelling and Wilson 1982). Kelling and Wilson stray from their own argument here: they wind up focusing on alleviating middle-class fears of crime rather than preventing real crimes. Broken windows theory has been widely denounced by social scientists ever since, but that has not prevented police departments in cities around the United States adopting such policies.
Alex Vitale explains that, as a kind of backlash against ‘urban liberalism’, which sought to address disorder through social and economic programs, the quality-of-life agenda shifted the focus of city government away from trying to improve people’s lives to instead attempting to restore social order. Rather than seeing unhoused people and other street hustlers as symptoms of ‘urban decline’, it viewed them as the source and responded with ‘new aggressive policing tactics and punitive social policies’ (Vitale 2008: 1–2). In New York City, Vitale argues, it was not primarily the 1993 mayoral election of Rudolph Giuliani and his appointment of William Bratton as police commissioner that ushered in the era of quality-of-life or ‘broken windows’ policing, but rather conflicts between primarily ‘commercial elites’ or even ‘urban liberals’ and the ‘socially marginal’ as the former felt their control over public space threatened and called for the New York Police Department (NYPD) to address low-level crime (Vitale 2008: 124–25).
In reality, quality-of-life policing was carried out through discriminatory practices like stop-and-frisk, illegal seizures of property (Duneier 1999), and increased surveillance, since ‘[u]nlike misdemeanor and felony complaints, summonses for many Quality of Life offenses can only be issued on the basis of observed conduct, not on a report of a violation’ (Erzen 2001: 26). Many conflicts over gentrification and who has the ‘right’ to be in a neighbourhood play out around quality-of-life issues, as both the public and the police often connect minor offences to broader concerns about safety, crime, and disorder in the city.
Bag Ladies (and Gentlemen)
In November 2022, police seized an estimated US$10 million worth of counterfeit designer goods from Canal Street and arrested 17 people, charging some with felony trademark counterfeiting. In a press conference after the seizures, NYPD Chief of Patrol Jeff Maddrey declared: ‘Sidewalks are blocked, there’s property everywhere, merchandise everywhere. This really impacts local businesses in a negative manner, as well as reduces the quality of life’ (Brown and McCarthy 2022). Photos in the New York Post show predominantly white officers hauling away carts and trays full of merchandise, from bracelets to sunglasses and handbags. In another photo, eight officers, most with their backs to the camera, stand in front of seven Black men who have their arms handcuffed behind them. Six of the handcuffed men look towards one of the officers, who must be speaking to them. One of the men, sitting on a folding chair in a brown sweatsuit with a white Nike logo on the front and clean, white Nike Air Force 1s, stares down the Post’s camera, defying the photographer to capture this violence unnoticed (Brown and McCarthy 2022).
The Chinese and West African merchants who dominate Canal Street’s counterfeit trade sell rather differently. Most of the Chinese merchants are women, who often hold only a handful of wallets or a small grocery cart containing clutches and crossbody bags, with their offerings advertised on laminated menus. Once the customer makes their selection, another person—usually a Chinese man—disappears to a nearby apartment or minivan and returns with the merchandise wrapped in a discreet black plastic bag. Most of the African sellers are men, who set out their goods on tarps, which puts them at greater risk of being arrested for blocking the sidewalk and makes them less mobile if they need to escape police. They often store overflow in carts and rubbish bags, into which they pack their wares when word goes out about a police patrol. Unlike most of the Chinese merchants, they often sell bulkier items like sneakers—fake Off-Whites and Dior Jordans—in addition to handbags.
I am not sure whether any Chinese merchants were arrested in the November 2022 bust, but the fact that only African merchants are visible in the New York Post photo suggests both their vulnerability to arrest and the way they seem to embody the ‘quality of life’ threat in the neighbourhood for police and readers of this conservative rag. In another article a few days before the bust, the New York Post had focused more on photographing the Chinese sellers and highlighted a Change.org petition started by a non–Chinese man, who ‘implore[d] any and all relevant law enforcement bodies and commands to assist [the First Precinct’s] efforts in the name of public safety and quality of life for [the neighbourhood’s] residents, workers, and visitors’ (Balsamini and Seidman 2022; A. 2022). None of the people who left comments on the petition appeared to be Chinese. In fact, one lifelong Chinatown resident told me he thought Chinese neighbourhood residents do not mind the sellers as they empathise with the hustlers.
According to Chief of Patrol Maddrey, however, ‘There’s [sic] layers of victims when you look at this. There are people buying these bags thinking they’re real when they’re not real’ (McNicholas 2022). On a sunny Saturday in the spring after the US$10-million bust, I went to Canal Street to look at some bags. Despite having frequented the street countless times, I was struck by the sheer amount of merchandise lining the sidewalks: red Hermes Birkins, Louis Vuitton Speedys, and Dior saddlebags. All around me, a chorus of voices haggled over the wares. The most common remark, though, seemed almost to hang in the air over the market, picked up by buyers up and down the street: ‘This looks so fake.’
‘Yes, but it’s still good quality. Excellent quality,’ the merchants assured tourists and regulars alike.
‘It just looks too fake, though—$40.’
At one tarp, I stopped to look at a bag, chatting with a vendor and another customer. ‘How can there be so many bags out here?’ I asked. ‘Aren’t you worried about the police?’
‘Yes, the police harass us,’ the merchant said. ‘They harass us for no reason.’
As early as 2001, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) raised concerns about the NYPD’s haphazard raids and illegal property seizures in Chinatown:
On any given day, one can witness a Midtown South Task Force van parked in plain view outside a watch- or perfume-vending stall, which, vendors say, the police indiscriminately raid, confiscating merchandise and cash. The NYPD justified these raids under the pretext that Canal Street vendors violate trademark laws by selling counterfeit items under such brand names as Guess, Gucci, and Ralph Lauren. While there are few, if any, New Yorkers or Chinatown tourists who actually believe they are buying a genuine brand-name item, the police routinely raid vending stalls. According to the Canal Street vendors, the police simply come into the stalls with garbage bags and confiscate merchandise and cash. No vouchers are made out for goods that are seized; and after the raid is complete, the vendors are never told what happens to the merchandise. (CAAAV 2001: 233)
In his book Sidewalk (1999), Mitchell Duneier similarly claims that police find it too tedious to catalogue seized items as they are legally obliged to, preferring instead to discard illicit wares when they are left unattended.
It is true that many fashion brands have complained about counterfeits. More frequently, some have embraced the knockoff aesthetic, creating sanctioned items that resemble counterfeits through misspelled brand names and askew logos (Schneier 2018). Police concerns over counterfeits thus have less to do with violations of intellectual property and more to do with the idea that sellers create hazardous sidewalks and that these quality-of-life offences might be ‘linked’ to crime ‘in a kind of developmental sequence’ (Kelling and Wilson 1982). In fact, the first mention of Canal Street’s counterfeit trade that I can find in newspaper archives comes from a report about the infamous Vietnamese ‘Born to Kill’ (BTK) gang in Chinatown in March 1989. The article alleges that, in the summer of 1988 when it was founded, BTK ‘threw a bomb loaded with .22-caliber bullets at a police car on Canal Street, slightly injuring two officers. The bomb was retaliation for the arrest of several local merchants for selling counterfeit Rolex watches’ (Butterfield 1989). Courtroom reports later suggested that BTK founder David Thai was manufacturing these watches in the basement of his Long Island home (Kocieniewski 1991; Hurtado 1992).
As counterfeit handbags rose in popularity through the early 2000s, broader connections were made between these sales and other crime. In 2007, an opinion piece in The New York Times alleged that
counterfeiting rackets are run by crime syndicates that also deal in narcotics, weapons, child prostitution, human trafficking and terrorism.
… Ronald K. Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, told the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations that profits from the sale of counterfeit goods have gone to groups associated with Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group, paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland and FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Sales of counterfeit T-shirts may have helped finance the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, according to the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition. ‘Profits from counterfeiting are one of three main sources of income supporting international terrorism,’ said Mangus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland. (Thomas 2007)
Somewhat more vaguely, at a press conference after a US$2-million counterfeiting bust on Canal Street in August 2022, Deputy Chief of Patrol Benjamin Gurley alleged: ‘[T]he money that is raised by the sale of these counterfeit goods is used to further other crimes throughout the city. We know it goes to fund criminal enterprise throughout New York City’ (NYPD News 2022a). It is not clear what kinds of ‘criminal enterprise’ in the city are funded by counterfeit sales. However, it is notable that these claims raise the spectre of ‘real crime’ with ‘real victims’, whom the public may find more sympathetic than the multi-billion-dollar luxury fashion industry.
Despite the threat of police crackdowns, sellers of counterfeit designer goods persist in Chinatown and elsewhere in the city. Most of the time when I walk down Canal Street, it seems that the Chinese and African sellers have designated sections of the street. East of Broadway is almost all Chinese women and west is almost all African men. However, the longer I have watched the sellers, the more I see that the distinctions are not so stark. African and Chinese men help each other carry bushels of merchandise into their minivans. They set up tarps and tables next to each other down Broadway and watch one another’s merchandise when they have to step away. One of the sunglasses stalls on Canal seems to be co-owned by Black and Chinese men. These are not grand acts of solidarity but minor acts of mutual aid—mutual aid ‘in a minor key’, perhaps. By helping one another to break the law as part of their hustles, and even by working side-by-side, these sellers offer a modest vision of Black and Chinese collaborations in the face of state violence and a dearth of legal means of earning an income. Of course, these merchants do not arrive on Canal Street on equal footing. They may have very different experiences with their suppliers, customers, and the law. However, as they work together on Canal, they embody the kinds of everyday interactions, from mere tolerance to active protection and investment, that bridge and connect Black and Chinese communities.
Not everyone finds the Black men who hold open the Chinatown subway emergency exits as charming as does my friend. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), for one, claims it lost US$500 million in 2022 to fare evasion. As a counterargument to these concerns, many New Yorkers on X (formerly Twitter) have pointed out that the MTA is spending US$1 million every month on private security to stop fare evaders in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars the NYPD is spending on additional overtime for officers stationed in the subways, most of whom spend their time talking to each other or playing games on their phones (Donaldson 2022). According to Michael Kemper, who, as of December 2022, was acting chief of the NYPD Transit Bureau:
[S]topping fare evasion is an important part of the city’s plan to reduce subway crime … [because] [t]here can’t be signs of lawlessness the second someone walks into a subway system … Think about the perception that gives the average citizen that’s paying their fare walking in, when their first minute into their journey is observing an atmosphere that is a free for all, it’s lawlessness. (Donaldson 2022)
Even the NYPD Transit Bureau’s Anti-Terrorism Unit has been conducting fare evasion stops, which they allege have helped them to apprehend people with outstanding warrants for violent offences (NYPD News 2022b).
Some community organisations have also voiced concerns about the subway hustlers. Every few weeks, one organisation conducts what it calls ‘subway support’ for an hour or two at the Grand Street station in Chinatown. Like the NYPD officers stationed in the subways, these volunteers try to stay vigilant against people who might do others harm on the platform. Unlike the police officers, the volunteers also try to help Chinatown subway users in other ways. They are posted throughout the station, particularly at every staircase, to help people carry their heavy grocery carts up and down the stairs. Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking volunteers give directions to people who are not fluent in English and help them purchase MetroCards. Volunteers also hand out flyers in Chinese and English with situational awareness and self-defence tips to help people stay safe in the subway.
At my first subway support session, I asked a long-time volunteer what concerns they had about subway activity.
‘Mostly these guys who harass the old people,’ he told me. ‘They hold the doors open or help them buy MetroCards, and then they harass them for money.’ He pointed men out to me as they walked in and out of the station—mostly Black men, who looked like they might be unhoused. ‘That guy is here a lot,’ he said. ‘And we’ve had trouble with that guy, too.’
‘Harass’ is a strong word. These men are unofficial fixtures in the subway, who provide regular, if extralegal, services and expect payment in return. However, particularly since unhoused, non-Asian men of colour have been heavily featured in the news reports of attacks on Asian people since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many in Chinatown seem to feel an added wariness during interactions with them. The very different perspectives on the subway hustlers between my friend and the subway support volunteer beg the questions: Can we describe practices as mutual aid if they have coercive aspects? Can marginalised people helping each other to break the law for mutual financial benefit—rather than, say, out of a political or moral commitment to each other—be considered mutual aid?
In his account of Malcolm X’s ‘Detroit Red’ hustler days, Robin D.G. Kelley writes:
[I]t seems that many hustlers of the 1940s shared a very limited culture of mutuality that militated against accumulation. On more than one occasion, Malcolm gave away or loaned money to friends when he himself was short of cash, and in at least one case ‘he pawned his suit for a friend who had pawned a watch for him when he had needed a loan.’
Nevertheless, acts of mutuality hardly translated into a radical collective identity; hustling by nature was a predatory act which did not discriminate by color. (Kelley 1996: 174–75)
Still, Kelley argues that Malcolm X’s experiences as a hustler and a thief
offered important lessons that ultimately shaped his later political perspectives.
… Unlike nearly all of his contemporaries during the 1960s, he was fond of comparing capitalism with organized crime and refused to characterize looting by black working people as criminal acts … Indeed, Malcolm insisted that dominant notions of criminality and private property only obscure the real nature of social relations: ‘Instead of the sociologists analyzing it as it actually is … again they cover up the real issue, and they use the press to make it appear that these people are thieves, hoodlums. No! They are the victims of organized thievery.’ (Kelley 1996: 178)
Similarly, Elizabeth Hinton has recently characterised African American ‘violent rebellion’ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as ‘a means for people of color to express collective solidarity in the face of exploitation, political exclusion, and criminalization’ (2021: 14). Following these logics, it is not clear to me what the difference is between ‘looting’ and ‘hustling’. Both seem to be part of the ‘revolutions in a minor key’ that Hartman describes: the ways in which marginalised people, excluded from dignified work—or even from undignified but legal work—claim the resources they need to eke out a living in the face of a system designed to make that as difficult as possible.
According to Dean Spade, there are three key elements of mutual aid:
One. Mutual aid projects work to meet survival needs and build shared understanding about why people do not have what they need. (Spade 2020: 9)
Two. Mutual aid projects mobilize people, expand solidarity, and build movements. (p. 12)
Three. Mutual aid projects are participatory, solving problems through collective action rather than waiting for saviors. (p. 16)
Chinatown’s subway hustlers work to address survival needs and financial concerns for themselves and others in their neighbourhood by illegally offering services more conveniently or cheaply than does the government. Holding emergency exit doors is work these men can do without needing much, and the door is certainly an easier way to enter the subway with a grocery cart than through the turnstiles. To some, these hustlers are exploitative of the people who use their services, which they imagine could or should be offered for free. On the other hand, in the face of concerns about the many homeless shelters in Chinatown and violent interactions between unhoused non-Asian people of colour and the Asian population in the neighbourhood, these mutually beneficial acts of law-breaking offer opportunities for interactions in which Black and Asian people are allied against the state, the police, and the law. While these illegal collaborations may not explicitly work to build shared understandings and movements between these populations, they are starting points for collaboration and worth considering in the face of arguments about the disparate needs of Black and Asian groups and their different social, political, and economic positions. In opposition to the state and in the effort to secure resources, what forms of Black and Asian collaborations might be possible? Despite potential prejudices, how might acts of law-breaking work as a site to develop more pragmatic connections that can help to bridge larger differences?