Update: On the evening of November 22, NYPD arrested Stuart Seldowitz on one count of aggravated harassment in the second degree, harassment, hate crime/stalking, stalking to cause fear, and stalking at place of employment, according to communication NYPD shared with Documented.
On November 7, a man approached Q Halal Cart on 83rd and Second Avenue and launched into an Islamophobic tirade, attacking the operator’s faith and culture and accusing him of supporting terrorists. It was the first of several incidents where Stuart Seldowitz, a former senior political officer in the U.S. State Department, berated the operators of the street cart.
“We never have any trouble with anyone,” said Sam, an Egyptian immigrant who works at the cart and declined to give his full name. “We have been nice to the homeless in the community too. Every day we give away free food when we have leftovers.”
On the corner of 83rd Street and Second Avenue, Q Halal Cart has been serving up shawarma and falafel platters to Upper East Side residents since the opening of the Second Avenue Subway in 2017.
Sam’s co-worker Mohamed recorded the tirades. In one of the three videos they recorded, the man insults Mohamed’s Islamic faith.
“The holy Quran that some people use as a toilet. What do you think of that, the Quran is used as a toilet. Does it bother you?” Seldowitz said.
Keeping his composure, the shy 24-year-old Mohamed would plead with the man to go away but he would refuse.
“It hurts man, I don’t feel safe,” Mohamed told Documented, adding he has spent the last few days worried that he would return “I told him to leave many times and he always says that ‘it’s a free country.’”
At the time neither Sam nor Mohamed was aware that Seldowitz was the same man that was harassing them, nor did they feel they had any recourse.
“When you deal with somebody like this, they can decide to do anything they want,” said Sam.
On Seldowitz’s third visit to the cart, Sam decided to call the police, he said.
“The police said ‘we can’t do anything, this is New York,’” he said.
Street vendors are often on the street at all hours of the day, so they are more vulnerable to verbal and physical attacks, Mohamed Attia, Managing Director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, explained.
“As a former food vendor myself I’ve experienced and witnessed some hate, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, but this level of hatred and bigotry is unconscionable,” he said. “Hate has no place in our city, and our streets should always be safe for everyone regardless of their faith, color, or background.”
Sam and Mohamed’s experiences come at a time of intensified hostility towards Muslim communities. Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has received an 182 percent increase in reports of bias incidents from Muslims across the country.
Documented could not reach Stuart Seldowitz for comment but in a New York Times interview, he expressed regret for his comments and insisted that he was not Islamophobic.
“I’ve worked with Muslims,” he told the Times, “I have many people who are Muslims and Arabs and so on, who know me very well and who know that I’m not prejudiced against them.”
Since the videos were uploaded on social media yesterday, they have gone viral and the vendors have received an outpouring of support from New Yorkers.
On X, the site formerly known as Twitter, Councilmember Julie Menin announced that the NYPD 19th Precinct and the Hate Crimes Task Force are reviewing the incidents.
The day the video was uploaded, Sam’s cart saw such a boost in business that he could barely make time to talk to a reporter. Customers, both regulars and first-timers, lined up to show support. In between orders, Sam says that most of his customers are Jewish and that a local Jewish store owner makes him a fresh cup of coffee every day. A regular Israeli customer even offered to bake Mohamed a cake for his birthday.
“I love them and they love my food,” said Sam.
Sam is grateful for the outpouring of community support.
“I feel like if I leave my money in the cart I feel that no one will come and take it from me,” he said. “Everybody fights for us.”