Locals react to interaction between mayor, street vendor
Was it racist behavior, or just explaining the rules?
Confusion, frustration and communication difficulties between the Mayor of Atwater and a street vendor selling fruit on a downtown street corner.
Charges of racism in a viral Facebook post.
And a sitting Merced City Council member dropping the F-bomb online for all to see.
All this and more led to a large crowd converging on Atwater’s City Hall on Monday night to decry the actions of Mayor Paul Creighton, who appeared taken aback at the controversy and the worked-up nature of the public reaction.
“There was never any racial comments or accusations or anything,” Creighton said at the meeting. “He was actually a very polite gentleman. … I don’t know how things got spun into this.”
The mayor said the man was not following Code Enforcement rules by operating a fruit stand without a license in Atwater’s downtown business district.
Over the weekend, a Facebook post described the incident on Saturday. It said Creighton approached a street vendor, only identified as Rolando, and a woman trying to buy fruit from the man. A video was also posted, apparently by the women, who said in Spanish that she felt harassed and scared by “this crazy man” who told the vendor he didn’t belong on the corner.
What followed next included heated reactions by local residents who were quick to defend the vendor and describe him as a target of racist behavior by an elected leader who is white. Some urged others to gather and attend the Council meeting to demand an apology from the mayor, and even his resignation.
Merced City Council member Bertha Perez posted the comment “F— that mayor.” She later doubled down when the Fresno Bee asked about her comments. “I feel very strongly about anybody being very racist to anybody,” she said. “I don’t have a problem saying f— a f—ing racist.”
Perez — who represents Merced’s downtown district — ended up attending the Atwater meeting and voiced a number of allegations of racial profiling and other concerns about the interaction.
“I’m here today to tell you mayor that I’m acting as an olive branch to give you the chance to apologize to everyone that you thought it was OK to treat people like your feet,” she said. “I don’t think you thought there was going to repercussions.”
Perez went on to note that residents countywide are not going to allow poor treatment of street vendors, and implored the mayor to take corrective actions, set and example, and do the right thing.
“Nobody wants to tell you that you’re a racist,” she said. “Nobody wants to stand up here and feel nervous and embarrassed for correcting you for your actions. This is not the first time it has happened. I’ve been to a bakery that I love to come to here in Atwater — and I won’t say which bakery it is for fear that you’ll retaliate against them — but it’s a Mexican bakery where I watched police officers target people … Why?”
The apparent witness to the event, who identified herself only as Cleo, showed up to the meeting too, and spoke through a translator.
“On April 24, I was a witness of how a white man was aggressively attacking a Hispanic food vendor,” she said. “He was only trying to make an honest living for himself. Until that moment the [white] man was unknown to me. I had no idea how long he has been in power because I am not involved in politics in the City of Atwater. I was the only witness that a white man verbally attacked a street vendor of fruit.”
She continued: “I was a victim of Paul Creighton, Mayor of Atwater, because he began recording me and telling me to leave because I don’t pay taxes with a horrible attitude and it was a shock to find out that the person attacking not only me ,but the street vendor, was the Mayor of Atwater.”
As Cleo’s statement came to an end, she became emotional as she detailed that she was fearful she would become a target of Mayor Creighton who might wield the public’s resources to “persecute me like you had done that day.”
Several other speakers expressed similar sentiments and expressed their frustrations regarding the mayor’s use of public resources to “intimidate and harass a street vendor.”
Some called for his resignation outright. Other residents noted that Mayor Creighton supported last year’s declaration that Atwater was a “Sanctuary City for Businesses,” but this year he took steps to remove a lone street vendor for selling fruit cups.
Nevertheless, Atwater resident Eduardo Perez defended the mayor with a powerful statement of his own.
“I was at home watching this stream, and I felt compelled to come down here,” he said, “because the people behind me who are speaking about you don’t know you. I feel that they’re speaking on a narrative they want to run with … but I’ve known you for years, and you’ve been there for me several times.”
Perez went on to speak about his brother who died last year and was a member of the armed services. “You helped me, give him, Sargent Carlos Torres, a hero’s welcome. The people behind me say, ‘Oh I have video of Paul doing this,’ well I have video of Paul helping me out at St. Anthony’s holding the American flag telling me that he’s a brother as he came down Winton Way. I’m here because I felt compelled to come and advocate for you Paul because these people behind me who don’t know you and want to judge you for five seconds of whatever nonsense they saw is unfair to you.”
Perez added that he viewed the previous speakers as being just as guilty of what they were accusing Mayor Creighton of — judging him without knowing more about him.
Other residents speaking on behalf of Mayor Creighton included people of color sharing their experience with him as he helped them get up on their feet and move towards a better life, and thanked the mayor for creating an overall business friendly atmosphere within the City of Atwater.
After the public comments, Mayor Creighton finally took the opportunity to address the incident.
“Thank you for expressing yourself,” he told those gathered. “This is America and there’s freedom of speech. What happened Saturday, was as the mayor, I witnessed an illegal street vendor and I was with my family on my way to a local store. I stopped and approached the gentleman, and I gave him my card, and said I was the mayor, and asked him if he had a business license. … He didn’t speak very good English.
“At that point I said ‘You can’t be here on the property because this is city property and you’re blocking the corner,’ and he said ‘OK’ in broken English. I informed him that you could get in trouble with Code Enforcement here and so you probably need to pack and move because it’s not allowed. If you don’t have a license you can’t be here, and if you have a license, you need to move to a better location.”
Creighton noted that he was then approached as he returned to his vehicle while he contacted City Manager Lori Waterman to let her “know that there was a vendor on Atwater Boulevard and First Street that is operating without a permit from what I can tell and could you please inquire. So that’s all that was the interaction between he and I — there was never any racial comments or accusations or anything — he was actually quite a polite gentleman.”
Mayor Creighton said he didn’t know how the situation “got spun into whatever it is,” but noted that he thinks, “It may be the society that we’re in where we have people that don’t know and weren’t there.”
He ended his comment by saying that it is important in a society to follow the rules and procedures as it works to make community safer.
“If we don’t have health permits for a street vendor, then the county doesn’t know if you’re permitted, then maybe your food handling practices aren’t right or whatever else, and we don’t want to injure anyone in our community and we don’t want that person to be liable for anyone else.
“So that was all my interaction was, after that I don’t know what this got turned into. I understand society is really weird right now, but that’s all I have to say.”