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November 13, 1999


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'Band-Aid On A Cancer'

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J M Shenoy in New York

Bhairavi Desai Bhairavi Desai, staff co-ordinator for the Taxi Workers Alliance, and the declared foe of New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, denounced Operation Refusal, a massive sting operation launched on November 12 to nab cabbies who refuse rides to African Americans or go to destinations passengers desire.

The mayor is simply trying to avoid "pervasive racism" in New York City by going after taxi drivers, says Desai.

Even movie star Danny Glover, whose complaint with the Taxi and Limousine Commission triggered the crackdown, has denounced the mayor's action, suggesting that it is motivated more by political expediency.

Guiliani, who is preparing to run for the Senate, is very unpopular with African American and Hispanics in New York City.

Another taxi drivers's leader bluntly told the mayor on November 11 that there could be bloodshed behind the wheels if drivers are forced to go into "dangerous" parts of the city.

"You will see a taxi driver killed in a taxi cab," Farooq Bhatti said while calling Guiliani's crackdown "dictatorial".

He said he believed in being "smart," and that cabbies should follow their instinct in refusing their service "no matter what the color of the person" is.

His thoughts are echoed by a cabbie from Kapurthala who had just heard that about 10 colleagues have been caught in the sting operation, their licenses suspended and their cars taken away from them till a hearing is scheduled before the authorities.

Despite the crackdown, the Kapurthala cabbie says he would rather risk being caught and lose his license than pick up African American passengers late in the night.

"I want the mayor and Danny Glover sit with me in the middle of the night when I have to go to (the) Bronx and Brooklyn," he says. "They don't drive to dangerous places. Why should they punish me then?"

Everybody is blaming cabbies from India and the neighboring countries for ignoring African Americans, he says.

But many African American drivers too refuse to stop their cabs for their own people, he adds. "Who wants to get mugged, who wants to get robbed," he asks.

Nearly 50 per cent of New York's 42,000 yellow cab drivers are from the Indian subcontinent.

Giuliani ordered the special crackdown following a formal complaint by Glover (of Lethal Weapon fame) that several cabbies sped past by him, his daughter and a friend in the heart of Manhattan.

Glover's racial-bias complaint also says a driver -- who has been described by him as a "man of color" -- treated him rudely and refused to let him sit in the front seat.

Announcing the unprecedented penalty of on-the-spot license suspensions and temporary seizure of their taxis, the mayor said: "We will take your cab away from you."

The "injustice," he warned, "has been going on for a very, very long time, and maybe this is an opportunity to change that.

Over 170 police officers and taxi inspectors took part in the sting, and Giuliani's office says there will be many more sting operations.

While Giuliani said he would go after the erring cabbies relentlessly, Glover was reportedly unhappy with the action.

He did not want the mayor to be ruthless with cabbies; instead he wanted the city to arrange for meaningful sensitivity courses in race relations. Currently, cabbies undergo a two-hour long sensitivity training when they get their licenses.

Glover believes that many drivers, who are recent immigrants, have preconceived notions about African Americans, often gained from racially insensitive Hollywood films.

His attorney Randolph Scott-McLaughlin called the mayor's plan "a publicity stunt".

"This is a Band-Aid on a cancer," he said.

Glover "doesn't want to penalize drivers. He wants to solve the problem, and you don't do that with heavy-handed enforcement."

The mayor is using the police to "demonize" the drivers, Scott-McLaughin said.

"Danny wants a long-term policy that will help drivers," he continued. "He wants them to know that not all blacks are criminals or thugs."

On Friday, scores of drivers, who met for tea in such restaurants as Curry in Hurry and Shaheen on Lexington Avenue after they performed namaz, echoed the sentiments of Magdy Ahmed, an Egyptian immigrant, who told reporters:

"There is no hate in my cab. It's just an experience."

Driver after driver shared their fears with reporters.

"Some of us blindly hate blacks (African Americans), we call them kallus all the time," said one driver. "That is very bad."

There are many African Americans he knows, he said, "who are great people." But he also knows from his own experience and those of fellow drivers, he continued, that going into certain parts of New York in the night was "as good as telling your parents or wife not to expect you for breakfast -- ever."

Several drivers said the passengers need sensitivity training too. "You know how many passengers talk bad to us," asked Kabir Chaudhery. "White people are rude, but black people are rude all the time."

If something happens to him, would Giuliani or Glover help his family, he wondered.

A TLC spokesperson said fears expressed by cabbies and their leaders were not grounded in reality. No cabbie has been killed since 1997, the spokesperson said. The number of taxi drivers who were robbed has come down from 972 to 197 last year, the spokesperson added.

But cabbies said even 197 robberies were too many.

"Sometimes we do not tell the police about robberies," said one cabbie. "They don't want to listen to us."

Many cabbies hoped that their union leaders fight the immediate suspension order.

"What if I did not really see a black man?" asked one cabbie. "What if it was a genuine mistake? Who will listen to my side?"

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