KINGSTON, Jamaica - Police bulldozed more than 1,000 makeshift vending stalls in downtown Kingston last week, leaving street merchants seething with rage and wondering how they will eke out a living.
Authorities described the demolition of the roadside kiosks, made from planks of discarded packing crates, as a security measure related to the May hunt for a reputed drug lord in which 73 civilians and three security officers died during four days of fighting.
Police Superintendent Terrence Bent, who is leading the clampdown on illegal vendors, said the jumble of ramshackle stands selling fruit, vegetables and other goods causes “obstructions that allow other people to blend in and commit other crimes.”
Authorities imposed a 48-hour curfew in several areas and told residents to remain in their homes in Tivoli Gardens, Denham Town and other central slums.
There were no immediate reports of violence during Thursday’s crackdown - but plenty of anger among the vendors, many of whom are impoverished and rely on their meager incomes to survive.
They say they have no choice but to set up their humble shops on sidewalks because the established markets are crowded, littered with garbage and plagued by extortionists who prey upon vendors.
“Police ... are trying to flatten us! If I have nowhere to sell, what can I do?” said merchant Deena Forrest as she stood by a rusted wheelbarrow holding breadfruit. “Nothing. I can do nothing.”
Dozens of vendors marched down a commercial street shouting, “No vending, no stores!” - prompting shop owners to pull down their shutters. Police broke up the demonstration and maintained a strong presence in the area to guard against possible looting.
Downtown shop owners have long complained that the street vendors hobble their businesses.
“A lot of the vendors don’t act in a dignified and proper way, putting their wares right on corners and confronting drivers as they try to navigate the streets. It’s turned away many law-abiding people from even coming downtown,” Chamber of Commerce director Laurence Heffes said.
Heffes said he hopes the crackdown will end the illegal kiosks. But he cautioned that authorities must expand and improve the sprawling markets, and make them safer, if the street vendors are to have a realistic alternative.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding reported this week that the poverty rate has hit 16.5 percent - the highest level since 2004 - in Jamaica, where many families depend on private vegetable patches and fruit trees for food and a tiny income.