For more than a month, taxi drivers have occupied a sidewalk outside City Hall 24 hours a day, protesting what they call the city’s inadequate response to the huge debt that many are faced.
Their songs “The mayor lies, the drivers die!” echo around City Hall Park, and even in the subway below. Now they have taken their protest to a new level by launching a hunger strike.
As the days passed, the drivers shared their stories of arriving in America and their dreams for themselves and their families.
But they’re mostly talking about the overwhelming loans many of them took after the taxi industry collapsed before the pandemic – making the value of lockets that once cost as much as $ 1 million to a fraction of what the drivers paid for them. At least nine debt-ridden drivers have committed suicide.
Drivers say financial pressure has intensified during the pandemic, with few tariffs to pay, leaving them unable to cover basic costs like insurance and repairs.
For some, the money owed is $ 50,000 – for others, more than $ 500,000.
“The city has the capacity to do something,” said Joseph Jajoute, 65, a longtime driver who owes $ 440,000. “We are hard working people. “
Taxi drivers offer a road to relief
Last year, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), which has 21,000 drivers, proposed a plan to keep drivers afloat. The group called on the city to put a sharp cap on principal and mortgage payments and act as a safety net when the lockets are taken back and auctioned off.
NYTWA’s plan is for the city to take responsibility for the lockets by buying them back and selling them. Loans would be limited to $ 125,000, with a maximum payment of $ 750 per month.
The city responded with a proposal to offer interest-free loans of up to $ 20,000, plus $ 1,500 in monthly payment grants for up to six months.
As of this week, the city has approved 102 owners of medallions for its restructuring plan, which represents a relief of $ 16 million on a debt of $ 33 million, said the Deputy Commissioner of the Taxi & Limousine Commission, Allan Fromberg.
NYTWA’s plan was supported by city council candidates and elected officials such as Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani (D-Queens). The New York congressional delegation signed a letter earlier this month supporting the call for a city-backed guarantee for debt relief.
Still, NYTWA management said it had not received a response from city hall. On Wednesday, a dozen taxi drivers and their allies, including Mamdani and city council candidates Jaslin Kaur, Shahana Hanif and Shekar Krishnan, went on a hunger strike to make sure town hall hears their message.
“What seems more undemocratic than seeing City Hall ignoring you when you’re outside the gates for… 30 days in a row,” said Bhairavai Desai, executive director of NYTWA.
THE CITY spoke with the drivers participating in the hunger strike. Here are some of their stories:
“Own a piece of New York”
Hong Kong’s father Augustine Tang drove a yellow cab. Tang remembers how proud his father was to “own a piece of New York.”
“He really felt like, you know, the locket was our way to the middle class,” said Tang, from downtown Brooklyn.
For a while the dream came true and the bills were paid.
His father did not speak about his financial difficulties. Tang later learned of the loans his father had taken against the locket and the debt that had swelled to $ 530,000. He passed away in 2015, leaving Tang only the locket.
“Half of me wanted to try and carry that heritage and wanted to keep it because I didn’t know anything about the industry,” said Tang, who chose to fight for his father’s locket. “I didn’t have to take over the debt. Would I change it? I could have, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t change my journey through it.
“In an American nightmare”
Richard Chow, 63, who lives on Staten Island and is from Myanmar, said he attended the rally every day. He started driving in 2015, and a year later bought his locket for $ 410,000 at a city auction.
“I was having the American dream,” he said. “Now I’m in an American nightmare. We have lost everything, we have lost our retirement, our investment.
“I lost my brother.
Chow’s brother Kenny, who followed him into the drive, was struggling with family medical bills and a $ 700,000 loan on his locket. He committed suicide three years ago. Chow said his brother’s death sparked a cascade of tragedy: Kenny’s wife died of cancer and his daughter was forced to drop out of college.
“I hope one day we will see the light,” Chow said. “The sun will come back, that’s what we hope for. He still owes $ 390,000.
“The icon of New York City”
Chime Gyatso worked in a gift shop selling taxi memorabilia, key chains, and shirts – anything that contained a taxi.
A Tibetan who moved to New York from Nepal, he remembers seeing Times Square for the first time and the yellow taxis on the streets. It was then that he decided his dream was to drive a taxi.
“You know, the yellow cab is the icon of New York City,” he said. “So I tried to become a taxi driver. ”
He started driving in 2000 and nine years later bought his medallion for $ 570,000. Today he owes the bank $ 650,000.
He said his pride in his work had since turned into sadness.
“The city threw us into the Hudson River,” said Gyatso, who hopes his two children won’t inherit his burden.
‘He believed in this locket
Sancho Persad, 26, started driving in 2014, when the taxi industry plummeted. His father and uncle had worked as taxi drivers and he saw a stable part-time job opportunity.
“I didn’t get a taste of the good times,” said Persad, who lives in the Bronx.
He said he currently pays $ 56,000 a year to rent another person’s locket. Meanwhile, he struggles to retrieve his deceased father’s locket from a broker.
“Even before he died, he believed in this locket,” Persad said.