Volume 5: Number 1, Feb 21 2002
Hisham Amer's Case
by Biju Mathew
On December 13, 2000, Hisham Amer, an Egyptian immigrant taxi driver, was driving down Park Avenue, just off Waldorf Astoria at 48th Street. Every experienced taxi driver in NYC knows that a few Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) inspectors hang out at the corner and do scripted routine checks: "pull over, pull over... your hack license... your rate card... your DMV license... your trip sheet." Then follows an examination of the cab itself while the inspector who has collected the documents does a check of them. Then they begin to write out the tickets. If you are lucky you get away with maybe one or two tickets but if the guy got off on the wrong side of his bed or has not yet met quota, you can expect anywhere from five to fifteen tickets: tickets for a penny in the back seat (unclean cab!) or more than two receipts hanging off the meter (failure to give customers the receipt!) or even for a torn map which is normally stuck inside the cab and has just been torn away by the last passenger (equipment violation!).
But Hisham Amer was not ready for what happened to him. He was pulled over and was still in the second lane, when one of the inspectors asked him for his papers and he rolled his window down to say "Be patient, be patient!" The next thing he knew, his driver side door was open and he was being dragged out by the inspector. As he struggled to understand what was happening to him, he felt a stinging pain shoot up his neck. He had just been hit on the neck with the radio that the inspector was holding.
Hisham fell to the floor and was semi-conscious. He was then dragged to a car and transported to the 17th precinct house. At the precinct house, he was taken into a cell without being registered and was handcuffed and beaten for the next many hours. All we know is that between the time he was stopped and by the time he arrived at the hospital in an Ambulance, six hours had passed.
After Abner Louima we thought it wouldn't happen again. After Amadou Diallo it was clear that violence against poor people, against poor people of color was a reality that we had to respond to and deal with daily in Rudolph Giuliani's NYC. With Hsiham Amer we know that the trajectory of abuse is not going to stay confined to the police department but is something we can expect in every space where a set of "officials" have power over a marginalized people or workforce.
What was scary about this case was that in spite of the gruesome nature of the act, it received no publicity. One radio station and one newspaper reported the matter in late December and then everybody wanted to forget about it. The TLC and the Mayor’s office made a claim that a DOI investigation was on and that the report would establish the "truth." How confident the city felt that this one would pass is visible from the fact that the four inspectors who were involved in the beating were not even suspended pending investigation. They continue to operate as agents of the law!
In January of 2001 the New York Taxi Workers Alliance first met with Hisham Amer and his lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein (who also fought the Louima case). As we began mobilizing drivers around the issue, the City began to realize that a story which it had tried to confine to the dustbin of DOI investigations might now have a new lease on life. Accordingly, it did everything to stop the NYTWA. When the organization sought permission for a taxicab demonstration down Broadway, the cops refused. When pressured, they offered two options: have a demonstration with 100 cabs at 6:30 AM or a demonstration with one cab at 12 noon! The organization refused. Then the cops wrote a letter saying NYTWA could do whatever it wanted to but they would respond using their discretion to punish what it would identify as violations of traffic laws. In other words, "Do it and we will give you hell!"
It took the NYTWA twenty days to respond. By then the cops had come to believe that the organization had backed off and nothing would come of all its brave talk of protests and demonstrations. They remained complacent until the evening of March 7, 2001, when a journalist called them and asked them if they knew of a demonstration the next day! All night NYPD's intelligence department kept calling the NYTWA office trying to figure out what was going on with the demonstration.
The demonstration was a pointed reminder of the fact that nobody knows the streets better than drivers. Over the previous ten days the NYTWA had called a core set of 60 of its most committed members and what had emerged was a simple plan. Between 10 and 11 Am on March 8, around 35 to 40 taxicabs took over as many meters on Houston Street and 1st Street as they could. The drivers knew that at that time most of those meters would be free. Swiftly, they moved in, parked their cars and put money in the meters. Then began the standoff. For the next two hours drivers went about merrily feeding the meters, putting up posters on their cabs and occasionally raising some slogans.
The cops waited and fretted. They couldn't find one illegal thing on which they could go after the cab drivers. In the end, the NYPD Chief of Operations for Manhattan came down to negotiate. "Tell us what you want to do and we will help you do it" he said. "Close down 1st Ave to allow an easy merge for all the cabs" was the response. So in the end 1st Avenue was closed down and the taxicabs proceeded down Broadway as was originally planned, escorted by cops on motorbikes. "What’s happening? Is the President in town?!" asked one puzzled pedestrian.
Hisham Amer's case was back in the news. The press was asking questions again and for the first time in three months, the TLC was forced to respond. Chairwoman Diane McGrath-McKechnie took ownership of the problem saying that she was "confident that her employees will be cleared." The momentum began increasing as on March 25 the Reverend Al Sharpton spoke to the press at his rally in Harlem, urging a large crowd to join the NYTWA in its efforts to bring justice and to not be cowed down by this administration. On March 27, a large rally kicked off the next phase of mobilizations against the TLC.
More than 2090 drivers and a large number of community members gathered at the offices of the TLC in protest. Beginning with a call for justice, the Reverend Sharpton was back this time to tell the crowd of taxi drivers that he and the African American community "will stand by them till the very end."
Bhairavi Desai, the Staff Organizer, of the NYTWA ,opened and closed the rally urging the driver brothers to ensure that every succeeding mobilization be attended by larger and larger numbers of drivers. Driver after driver, of all ethnicities—Pakistani, West African, Arab, Sikh, Latino, and Bangladeshi—came up and laid out an analysis of how the TLC forms a central exploitative and racist front of the city and expressed their resolve to battle this. In the words of Mohammed Ahmed, a Bangladeshi brother, "We just cannot stop."
Other community organizations moved in also to express their continued dedication to fight the battles—Kamala from Workers Awaaz, Chaumtoli from Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Tejasvi Nagaraja from the South Asians Against Police Brutality and Racism. "What next?" asked a reporter of Bhairavi at the end of the rally. She was equally short in her response: "Wait and see!" The cards, they say, must always be held close to the chest.
—A report from the Khoon Pasina Network.
(Biju organizes in New York City.)
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