Volume 80, Number 48 | April 28 - May 4, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Bagging the buyers
A bill on counterfeit trademark merchandise proposed by Councilmember Margaret Chin, at first glance, might seem like it’s coming out of left field. In short, the councilmember is proposing that buyers of obviously counterfeit items face penalties for their actions, to the tune of up to $1,000 and a year in jail per item. That is, get caught by police while buying five knockoff Gucci handbags on Canal St. and a person could face up to five years in the slammer, plus a five-grand fine.
It seems harsh, to say the least. Should out-of-towners really be handcuffed and hauled off to Rikers Island for buying a bogus Louis Vuitton or an imitation Rolex? That certainly would be getting “the full New York experience,” making for a truly unforgettable Big Apple visit.
There’s no question, however, that the proliferation of illegal vending is a concern for residents and merchants. While some activists defend the right of anyone to vend anything anywhere on our sidewalks, there currently are rules pertaining to vending. Some residents tell of violent altercations with vendors defending their “turf.” Trademark counterfeiting is another, though related issue. While one could argue that those hurt by the sale of fake handbags are merely multinational corporations, it goes beyond that: Trademark counterfeiting adds to the mix of illegal activity in areas like Canal St., attracting other illicit business and plain crime.
After Chin announced her bill Tuesday, we did a quick poll of Soho activists, and those we spoke to support the measure, which is co-sponsored by Councilmember Rosie Mendez. Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, and Ian Dutton, a former Community Board 2 member, don’t always agree on the issues, but they do on this one. Basically, the consensus is that these tourists and visitors are not naïve, that they know full well they are engaging in an illegal activity when they enter an unmarked van or a secret back room to buy a look-alike Chanel satchel for a fraction of the normal price.
As Sweeney put it: “We arrest johns, we arrest drug buyers, we arrest people holding counterfeit money if they know it is counterfeit. Why should these tourists come here to our neighborhood and engage in and promote illegal activities that they would never allow going on in front of their suburban homes?
“Start arresting a few tourists,” Sweeney said, “watch it appear in the press and national news, as well as the tourist guidebooks — some of which direct the tourists to Canal St. — and watch how quickly these people stop coming to engage in this illicit activity Downtown.”
While buying a fake-label leather pocketbook is not the same as purchasing hard drugs or a handgun, there are claims that the counterfeiters have ties to organized crime and human trafficking. We’d like to see more concrete evidence of that, but it’s certainly conceivable. Hopefully, authorities would go beyond collaring tourists from Piscataway and Peoria and root out the kingpins. But there is a clear logic to the bill: Decrease the demand and the supply will shrink.
There are questions, however, on whether this law would have support in the City Council, and whether it would be enforceable in court. Also tourists would have to be notified if there is a penalty to buy fake handbags on Canal St. or anywhere else in the city. Hotels and other tourist-oriented businesses — perhaps a new Chinatown BID — would have to play a role in this; and it would make sense to post signage along Canal St., warning of the consequences of buying a “hot bag.”
We’re glad to see our elected officials thinking creatively about addressing illegal vending and trademark counterfeiting, which are stubborn quality-of-life issues in our neighborhoods.