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November 6, 1999


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African Americans Flag Down NY Cabbies

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J M Shenoy in New York

Would a cabbie refuse a ride to a Mafia boss? G S Bajwa is still musing over the question raised by an African American community activist.

Referring to complaints that many New York cabbies do not pick up African American passengers, the activist wondered if cabbies would shut off people like John Gotti, a Mafia boss.

"The Mafia guys do not bother small people like me," Bajwa says, echoing the sentiments of many other cabbies. "They do not mug cab drivers and run away with their money. It is true that only a tiny percent of blacks rob cabbies but I don't think a Mafia guy has done that to me or my friends."

He pauses for a minute, stroking his beard.

"How would I know who is a Mafia guy? Do they carry the description on their foreheads?

He was discussing a demand on November 5 by African American leaders, including former mayor David Dinkins, that there should be a crackdown on cabbies who refuse to pick up African Americans. A rally is being held in Harlem on Saturday to decry racism among the cabbies.

Several Hispanic leaders are expected to join it and discuss the problems their people face in getting a cab in New York City. African Americans and Hispanics constitute about 30 per cent of New York's eight million residents.

Dinkins says the incident in which one of the best-known of Hollywood actors, Danny Glover (of the Lethal Weapon series), was refused a ride by at least five cabbies this week is not rare. He himself has been refused a ride several times, Dinkins says.

On one occasion, the cabbie picked up a white passenger a few yards from where Dinkins was standing.

Oscar-winner Denzel Washintgon (Bone Collector and Glory ) has had the experience of being ignored by cabbies too.

Danny Glover who has filed a formal complaint with the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) which regulates taxi business in New York, said that after a long wait and several rejections, he found one cabbie who grudgingly stopped for him, his daughter and a friend. They were close to Columbia University. Harlem, which has a high crime rate, is a few blocks away.

The cab driver refused to let Glover sit in the front.

Glover, one of the tallest actors in Hollywood, needed more room to stretch his legs, and he knew that under certain circumstances, cabbies should allow people to sit in the front. Only when the police were summoned could Glover get a front seat.

Glover has not released the race of the cabbie, merely saying that he was a person of color. Sources say the cabbie is from Bangladesh. The cabbies who refused him a ride earlier came from different continents; one was reportedly from India and another from the former Soviet Union.

About 40 per cent of New York's 25,000 drivers of yellow and livery cabs are from the Indian subcontinent.

"This matter goes beyond Danny," said the fiery community leader the Rev.Al Sharpton who is planning a class action against taxi companies in New York City and is also demanding that the TLC should have more intensive sensitivity-training for cabbies.

People close to Sharpton say they are not "amused" the very cabbies who went off the road for a day early this year protesting Mayor Giuliani's strict laws for cabbies and called him a racist, are indulging in racist behaviour, shunning people of other color.

"When it comes to racial discrimination we are all guilty," says a former cabbie who is going to a technical school in New York. "But why is there so much focus on cabbies from the Indian region," asks the man who grew up in Bombay and openly admits that he has refused rides to many young black fares.

The controversy also masks an overlooked phenomenon, he says.

"But can Dinkins, Sharpton and Glover not know that black cab drivers are also afraid of going into certain sections of the Bronx and Brooklyn after evening hours, and they many of them duck black and Hispanic passengers as some of us do," he asked.

Why aren't the cabbies afraid of white passengers?

"White people mug us too, but in a different way," he says, laughing. "They do not provide enough money for quality education of the poor, they tax us too much, they may not want us in their neighborhood. But they do not hold knives or guns to our heads, and demand money from us."

"It is not a matter of color," Bajwa says as he continues the discussion. "I am afraid, very afraid that something bad may happen to me in the Bronx or some part of Brooklyn."

There were about 569 murders in New York City, by the end of October, Brooklyn accounted for nearly 40 per cent of those murders. Though less than a dozen cabbies have been killed in New York, cabbies say they are haunted by the fear of being killed.

"Besides, hundreds of us get robbed each week," Pravez Shah says. "Some of us have just stopped reporting the incidents because we know we don't get justice.

"Sometimes we think we are racially attacked," he continues. "We get beaten up and robbed because we are foreigners."

Several years ago, a Pakistani cab driver who was mugged by young African Americans, lost about $ 120. One of the muggers taunted him, asking the man, who had migrated from Pakistan 20 years ago, to go to India. "We don't need you here, Gandhi," one of them said.

Citing the high rate of crime in some pockets of the city with a high African American and Hispanic population, an Indian cabbie says he prays every time he sees a minority passenger. He prays that some other cabbie, who may be licensed to carry a gun or who knows martial arts, should turn up from somewhere and give the passenger a ride.

"The man who gets into my cab could be the best man in the world but who knows what could happen to me after I have dropped him home?" the cabbie from New Delhi who has three children back home asks.

He also knows why cabbies are hesitant to pick up minority passengers in the best part of the city. "How do we know where the person is headed?"

New York law prohibits cabbies from refusing to go to any part of the city but many cabbies pretend they have not seen the passenger if the person happens to be African American or Hispanic.

"Or they are pretending they are going home, and that their shift is over," says Fard Washington, a New York book editor.

Several African American celebrities and senior executives working for top law and financial firms in New York were all over the media in the past 24 hours detailing their own experiences.

Makeup artist Dynode Marcie said he was in a tuxedo and waiting for a cab near the Radio City Hall in Manhattan after the Grammy Awards were given out.

Several cabbies passed by him. He recalled his late cousin, the legendary Carmen Rae, had told him about performing in hotels in Las Vegas which did not serve African Americans late into the 1950s.

"I wonder what she would say now," he said. "We have come far but we still can't get cabs."

A top Wall Street executive said that on a cold night, four cabs passed by her and her three children. When a white man appeared a few minutes later and stood a few feet ahead of her, two cabbies almost ran into each other trying to stop for him.

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