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December 7, 1999


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'Get Another Job,' Glover Tells Timid Cabbies

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A P Kamath

Bhairavi Desai, the 27-year-old head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wants a bill of rights for cabbies too.

"Drivers know there is a bill of rights for the passengers, but there is no bill of rights for the drivers," Desai said on Sunday, addressing a conference at Pace University. She was responding to an incident on October 9 when movie star Danny Glover was refused a ride by several New York cabbies -- and the request of the star, who is six foot and four inches tall to sit next to the driver was initially turned down.

The city subsequently enforced tough legislation against cabbies who refused to pick up passengers or drive them to their destinations. More than 40 drivers, including a handful of African Americans and south Asians, have been pulled up for refusing to stop for minority passengers in the last three weeks.

While Desai said none of the problems the cabbies faced justified people being denied service, she said that many cabbies started out their days more than $ 100 in debt for rental fees and so feel forced to take fares only in the city's central areas.

Despite the statistics that the crimes against cabbies had come down dramatically in recent years, the drivers were still concerned about their safety, she said.

The drivers also felt that the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which has tightened laws against erring drivers considerably in recent months, does not care for their safety.

Glover, who attended the conference with his friend entertainer Harry Belafonte, said he was against the crackdown ordered by the mayor, and the reason he filed the complaint was to highlight an issue -- that African Americans were persistently denied a ride.

"The cab drivers expressed a sense of abuse from city officers and I agree with it," Glover said. "When I was told about the action taken, I was opposed to it." He called for a "more caring agreement" between drivers and minority passengers.

But he was also forthright in his criticism of the cabbies.

The 52-year-old actor of such popular films like the Lethal Weapon series and The Color Purple, asserted drivers afraid to pick up black riders "may need to get another job".

Glover, who had worked as a taxi driver in San Francisco for over a year before trying to get into the acting business, said: "If a driver fears for his life when he takes a black passenger into his cab, then perhaps he has to have a total different understanding of who black people are, and perhaps he needs to get another job."

"He has to have another educational process that I can't help him with.

"If he means that he fears me, he fears my daughter and the woman standing in front of me."

Many South Asian cabbies -- not to forget African cabbies -- said that when they are reluctant to pick up minority passengers, they do so out of their experience. G S Bajwa, for instance, tells about how young African passengers often just walked out of the cab without any hesitation, and that he has lost hundreds of dollars a year driving to parts of Harlem and the Bronx.

"Sometimes people ask me how is that we give rides to Mafia men without any hesitation," he says with a chuckle. "Now, Mafia guys won't wear a cap saying they are John Gotti or some other big shot. Besides, they are not in the habit of mugging poor cabbies."

Glover, who must have heard similar criticism, said many cabbies reflected in their action the stereotype notions about black Americans.

"The attitudes people have about African-Americans: 'They come off the street'," he said.

Glover said he understands drivers' fears. But he also thought some cabbies use the fears as an excuse to avoid taking fares to destinations outside Manhattan.

"People need to become a lot more caring and sensitive," he said.

Though not more than a dozen cabbies turned up for the reconciliation meeting, some of them did not hesitate to take on Glover.

Hidayat-Ullah Khan said he is reluctant to pick up African-Americans after two black men refused to pay him a $ 20 fare. "I was angry. How would you feel?" he asked.

On the day of the meeting, many cabbies in Manhattan's Curry in a Hurry and Shaheen restaurants talked of their problems with the minorities.

Using the derogatory word south Asian cabbies often use to describe African Americans, a cabbie originally from Karachi said three kallus had got him to drive to a remote part of Brooklyn, refused to pay him $ 28, and left the cab, saying, 'Bye, bye, Gandhi'.

"Insult after insult," he said. "I want to leave this profession and go back home but I know how much money I have wasted coming to this country. So I stay. The Koran teaches us to respect everyone but when people rob us, want to kill us, what should we do?"

Two weeks before the Sunday's meeting, Glover, describing himself as an idealist, told Newsday: 'You can change anything.'

He wanted a 'sincere dialogue,' with the cabbies and his goal 'is to bring attention to discrimination and work toward its demise.

'I trust conscientious people in a democratic society are capable of having a dialogue to settle their differences and explore ways of dealing with issues,' he said. 'Compromise, understanding and dialogue. Once we have that, we're capable of coming up with our own solutions.'

While Glover has criticized Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's crackdown, he suggested through his attorney, Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, that rather than slap cabbies with fines, they should be made to sit down with those denied rides in sessions controlled by mediators.

One cabbie who heard of this proposal laughed it away.

"Here we are, thinking every minute how to make some extra money, how to save something, and now, they tell us we should attend sessions," he said. "Are we in a jail?"

Drivers could be directed to do community service with black churches and community organizations, the attorney said.

"It would expose a new immigrant to this African-American community in a non-hostile environment and let him see they are real people, not all gangsters and thugs," Scott-McLaughlin said. "I believe familiarity does not breed contempt; it breeds understanding."

TLC Commissioner Diane McGrath-McKechnie justified the crackdown and said the numbers show that most drivers are obeying the law.

The panel of trade union leaders, civil right activists and Glover's representative will try to develop a list of recommendations from the discussion aimed at improving relations.

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