Saturday, June 23, 2012

The City vs Cab Drivers? A Micro History 1.

The issue in 1984 was putting more taxis on the street for the Democratic convention. However, as long as she was at it, then Major Dianne Feinstein decided to reform the cab business as well.

The problem was addressed by the Police Commission which regulated cabs at the time. They assigned a young police lieutenant (whose name I forget) to do a thorough study of the taxi industry including in-depth interviews with cab drivers.

What I don't forget is the interview. It turned out that instead of talking to drivers individually, the L.T. chose to meet a group of us in a room. I was a newbie but the rest of the drivers had been around many a block. We totalled about 140 years of cab driving experience. We were confident that we could give the man many insights into how the taxi business really worked and how to improve it.

The L.T. popped suddenly into the room and started to tell us what would be in his report without asking us one single question. He informed us that during his research at SFO he'd spend over two hours observing the situation during a Tuesday afternoon in April.

I raised my hand and politely suggested that he had a few details wrong.

"Well," he interrupted shouting, "I disagree! And, if it comes to a fight, the cops'll beat the cabbies!"

I kid you not. That was the in-depth interview.

Surprisingly, the report agreed exactly with Feinstein's analysis of the situation: namely that cab drivers were poor in quality but there should be more of them. The L.T. was praised by the Police Commission and promoted to Commander of the Taraval Police Station a few years later. Last I heard he was doing well with a private law practice.

His report had no lasting effects what-so-ever on the taxi business but it leaves me with an observation and a question.

Cab drivers were considered neither part of the public nor the working class.

The situation was officially framed by the press as Cab Driver Income vs Public Good but you didn't have to read too far between the lines to see that what they actually meant was Greedy Cabbies vs Us.

For me, the most startling aspect of the farce (I was a newbie remember) was that a gaggle of liberal democratic politicians didn't see us as workers. They treated almost us like a criminal class. Or, as Chris Hayashi's predecessor Heidi Machen once put it, cab drivers were "either criminals or soon would be."

 In 1984, the city actually set up a cab stand in the Sunset and assigned a policeman to make sure that a cab driver stayed on the stand to take radio calls.

This conception of cab drivers as future-cons was brought home to me a few years later when "left-wing liberal" Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver herded a bunch of us (apparently chosen at random) into the Board of Supervisor's chamber. I'm not sure why we were there but these were some of the best and most experienced cab drivers that I knew. I think Silver intended to include "Taxicab Reform" in her re-election package.

She shouted and snarled at us like a Drill Sergeant, had us line up standing at attention and demanded that we show her our identification. When I started to ask her why we were there, she screamed at me to, "Shut Up!"

She took our A-cards and IDs into another room - apparently to photocopy them. When she returned she told us that we'd better shape up by the next year.

"I wouldn't worry about that," I told her.

"Why not?" she demanded, incredulous at my temerity in speaking to her.

"Because we're going to vote you out of office!" I said ... well ...  I think I lost it and yelled.

In any case, it shut her up. She walked out of the room staring at me with hostility and confusion. It might never before have occurred to her that we were capable of reading a ballot much less voting.

She did lose the election but there probably were issues other than my vengeance involved.

What I take from this incident is the image of a woman who had been jailed in 1961 for fighting for the rights of Afro-Americans in the segregated South talking to us exactly like a bigot might have talked to a "N......" in the South of that same period.

Why didn't the L.T. actually interview us?

I mean,  he didn't make that decision by himself. Not this guy. His supervisors, the Police Commission, maybe Feinstein herself dictated his behavior. But why?

They'd already gone to considerable expense, they already had the cab drivers available, why not interview us? Why not try to understand the business? Why not have a real reform? Feinstein could've taken credit for it. Why not do it?

I've been pondering this question for a long time and the only answer I can come up with is that Feinstein thought that her ideas about the taxi business were THE TRUTH.

Another way of putting it, would be to say that Feinstein, and the other city officials, thought that cab drivers were either too stupid to understand their own business or that the business was so simple that any "educated person" could understand it, probably both.

This conception of "cabbies" as a semi-literate, future-criminal class would dominate city politics for the next twenty years.

1 comment:

  1. The assumption by the politicians and law enforcement that cab drivers are sub-standard citizens or non-citizens is still prevalent.

    There would be no attempt to convince us of the alleged opportunity of spending a quarter of a million dollars for a permit that isn't good for more than fourteen shifts a week, and with a definite ceiling to all earnings with or through the medallion, if the presumption weren't made that cab drivers can't tell a job contract from a home loan.

    Let's see, how else do they think we're morons...

    During the Jordana Thigpen TC, I was once interrogated by her and Sergent Murphy, Inspector Suslow having already retired. A passenger with very little English had gone ballistic when I asked her where she was from, screaming at me "I don't have to submit to your interrogation!"

    The complaint was absurd in the extreme but I had to sit there... what are you going to do when an attack dog has you corralled? Eventually the extremity of my error was acknowledged as having dissipated and I asked Sgt. Murphy plainly "Is it true that the Police Department has a policy of siding with complainants against cab drivers?"

    Astonishingly, he swallowed that, hook line and sinker, and said "Yes, because they are the ones paying our salaries." That is a verbatim quote of his words.

    IOW, 1) Yes, the top taxi cop told me directly that SFPD Taxi Detail had a policy against us. That is obviously a strident violation of the very idea of Justice. 2) Cab drivers were assumed to be an underclass of society, about whom ordinary reasoning power about rights and justice - even right and wrong - did not need to be exercised, and 3) There was held to be a "proof" against the cabbies, namely that they do not pay taxes. Nevermind that it is not within Police jurisdiction to decide who it is they dispense their brand of justice to - if a Wells Fargo executive complained about a B of A executive, the cops would not make assumptions about who did or didn't pay their taxes - even though we know that neither of them pay as much of their income in tax as I do.