When I first moved to Madison, I'll admit, I was inherently suspicious of any food that's served out of a shack. The same goes for trailers, carts, wagons, trucks and wheelbarrows.
Maybe it was part of coming into my own as a UW freshman, but I did eventually get adventurous and try some of the food vendors who set up regularly on Library Mall. Ingrid's Mad City Meatloaf converted me from a cautious mobile cuisine dabbler to a shameless promoter and rabid fan of the entire food cart community.
But then again, Ingrid's meatloaf could probably turn Vegans back to carnivorism, if she didn't offer a hefty selection for Madison's lettucehead population as well.
Nonetheless, one of my greatest failures as a UW student may have been neglecting to visit "Jin's Chicken and Fish" shack even ONCE after a night out at the bars. And now, if the City of Madison Vending Oversight Committee has its way, I may have less than a month to do so before it's gone for at least six months.
At a meeting last week, the VOC voted to recommend that Jeff Okafo, the proprietor of Jin's Chicken, be stripped of his vending license for six months. His offense? A stack of parking tickets and a run-in with a Madison Police officer that resulted in Okafo being on the business end of a taser / pepper spray barrage.
When Okafo told me about the taser part this morning at Indie Coffee, I nearly doused the guy in a mouthful of black coffee. I CCAPed him in preparation for our meeting, and I was aware of the Obstructing an Officer charges pending against him for a little kerfuffle from last spring. But the cavalier way he described having chili derivative sprayed in his eyes and upwards of 15,000 volts of electricity coursing through his flesh nearly floored me.
I would not mess with Jeff Okafo, even at bartime. The city of Madison, on the other hand, swings a decidedly heavier hammer than I do.
One can certainly make the argument that Okafo has damned himself in this whole situation. Wracking up 29 parking tickets in a year is of itself a feat worth some note, perhaps even a record of some kind. The alleged fight with a parking enforcement officer in May is even more damning, as are the Operating After Revocation tickets he's earned along the way.
But then again, put in his same situation, I can see myself winding up even worse off. It's not much of a stretch.
Okafo makes his living selling food out of a cart late at night. The city has not granted him permission to set up on Library Mall or State Street, where he would be out of the way when parking push came to parking shove, so he has to battle for spots on the one street they have given him permission to use: Frances Street, where the spots are scarce and metered.
The meters, of course, aren't monitored after six o'clock in the evening, but the spots there are filled up long before then by people hoping themselves to park overnight. In order to be assured a spot, and thus an income for the evening, Okafo needs to get there by the middle of the afternoon... Which means plugging the meters... Which means risking a ticket.
29 tickets in a year still seemed extreme to me, until I realized that I myself have amassed seven or eight tickets in the past year for various parking infractions. As a reporter, I certainly spend more time tooling around in a car downtown than most people, but I certainly don't make my living parking out on the streets like Okafo does. For him, parking tickets are almost just another business expense.
The tickets are of course a hair-tearing inconvenience, but it's when they stack up that they become a major problem. When you amass as many as Okafo has, it's only a matter of time before a few slip through the cracks and remain unpaid. This runs up the amount owed, and eventually suspends your registration with the state.
But when your livelihood depends on driving a cart downtown to set up for the evening, a suspended registration could certainly look insignificant compared to having no income until the troubles are cleared up...that is, until those blueberries and cherries show up in your rearview mirror.
As to Okafo's alleged run-in with the police last May, it's tough to work out what actually happened. He says he came upon a parking enforcement officer writing him a ticket, had some words and the police got called. In what he describes as a complete police overreaction, he ended up down for the count and under arrest.
Okay. Who hasn't gotten a little heated when they discover they've received a visit from Madison's Parking Ninjas? Judging by my overreaction to getting a parking ticket in June, I'll be bound over on attempted homicide charges if I ever catch the actual parking goon in the act, though I'm convinced they're equipped with some kind of stealth technology.
Were the officers' actions appropriate in dealing with the situation as it unfolded? That's a gray area. As anyone who was on State Street during either of the last two so-called "riots" following the Halloween festival will tell you, our department has an affinity for quickly deploying teargas. And if you believe Okafo's account, it sounds like his situation wasn't much different:
"I went to go talk to the police officer to complain about the parking enforcement officer. Meanwhile, the guy is yelling at me to get on the ground and put my hands behind my back. I didn’t want to put my hands behind my back because I didn’t want him to think I had a weapon, so I put my hands over my head. Then he tasers me. I felt the taser, it didn’t take full effect, I grabbed the dart out of me. I’m standing 10-15 feet away from him, he says he’s gonna call another officer. I say that’s a good idea, and he interpreted that as a threat. He made it sound in the report like I was screaming in the middle of the street, which is completely untrue."
(By the way, that previous link is why you don't meet with a source in a coffee shop frequented by student journalists with laptops and nothing better to do on a Tuesday than eavesdrop your interview and scoop you before you can get home from work and do your writing. Get a job, and get off my damn lawn you kids! (...so kidding...) )
I'm not making excuses for Okafo. I have nothing but respect for Mike Verveer, who sits on the Vending Oversight Committee. I have occasionally disagreed with him, but I think he's an admirable leader with sound judgement. And when I broached the topic with Verveer tonight, he assured me the city is within its rights to do what it's doing. He also went to bat for the officers on the scene, saying Okafo "picked a fight."
A friend of mine who's familiar with the case admits, "Jeff has made mistakes and handled himself poorly, but I agree with him that it seems unfair that he may lose his vending license because of this. Parking tickets come with a penalty already."
The city is taking a hardline stance with Jin's chicken, and it could set a dangerous precedent for the other street vendors that make downtown Madison the colorful, vibrant place it is. In a sense, Okafo is being doubly punished: he's taken the steps to pay off most of the parking tickets, and he says he spent over $3,000 to get his license and registration reinstated. He pays a nonrefundable fee to the city for the privilege of vending food on the streets, but they're looking at taking that away from him anyway.
And if a court indeed finds him guilty of obstructing an officer and disorderly conduct, he will pay the associated penalty. But if the city strips him of the livelihood he's made for himself since 1992, what reason does he have to reform, to break out of the funk he's stuck in?
As he told me very plainly, "Nobody else I've ever met's job is threatened by parking tickets."
And don't even get me started on those maniacs down at parking enforcement. How many cities have you heard of where the meter masters literally have the power to drive a man from his livelihood?