New York police harass cigarette vendors instead of fighting crime

A recent articles in The New York Times profiles “Lonnie Loosie,” given name Lonnie Warner, one of numerous NYC residents who makes his living on the black market by selling cigarettes to pedestrians. Warner sells both packs and loosies (single cigarettes) which is where he got his nickname.

According to the Times, Warner’s way of making money has earned him the attention of the NYPD. He has been arrested numerous times and charged with selling untaxed cigarettes.

Lonnie Loosie selling a cigarette (Source: New York Times)

Mr. Warner said he and each of his two partners took home $120 to $150 a day, profit made from selling about 2,000 cigarettes, mostly two at a time. Each transaction is a misdemeanor offense.

Among all of Midtown’s cigarette vendors, Mr. Warner stands out, partly because he seems to get arrested more frequently than others. That may be because his style of salesmanship is hardly furtive.

“The cops call me a fish — that’s my nickname, cause I’m easy to catch,” Mr. Warner said during a series of recent interviews. “When they need a body to arrest, they come pick me up.”

In the four years since he began selling cigarettes, Mr. Warner recalls being arrested 15 times, generally on the charge of selling untaxed tobacco. He has been arrested so often that he can recognize 10 different plainclothes police officers, he claims. The ever-present risk of arrest makes working with partners valuable — “we have six eyes on this block,” he explained.

Mr. Warner grew up in Jersey City and spent about two decades in New Jersey prisons for a series of armed robberies. Those crimes date from a time when he says he was addicted to crack cocaine.

After his release from a 13-year sentence in 2006, Mr. Warner tried to find steady work in New York, but was invariably rebuffed — because of his felony status, he suspects. When he considers his options for making a living, he sees few besides selling loosies.

“I’m sorry that it’s come to this, but this is what it’s come to,” he said.

He said he would like to work someday as a barker for tour buses, selling Manhattan’s attractions to wandering tourists.

“I love the streets,” he said. “I love the people in the streets.”

— Joseph Goldstein, “On Manhattan Streets, Loosie Men Sell Illegal Smokes” (Apr. 4th, 2011), The New York Times

Warner and the other cigarette vendors of NYC aren’t alone. It’s very common for police (especially those in cities) to harass people for for running unlicensed vending businesses. When Ademo and Pete were in Las Vegas working on Liberty on Tour, they met several water vendors who said they had been harassed before.

And while police are busy harassing people for simply trying to make a living, millions of violent crimes and property crimes go unsolved every year. It really shows where their priorities are.


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