Additional reporting by Photos by Ben Fractenberg
For over a month, cab drivers have occupied a sidewalk outside City Hall around the clock, protesting what they call the city’s inadequate response to the staggering debt many of them face.
Their chants of “Mayor lies, drivers die!” echo around City Hall Park, and even in the subway beneath it. Now they’ve taken their demonstration to new level by launching a hunger strike.
Over the many days, drivers have shared their stories of when they first arrived in America, and their dreams for themselves and their families.
But they talk most about the crushing loans many of them incurred after the taxi industry collapsed before the pandemic — rendering the value of medallions that once cost as much as $1 million to a fraction of what drivers paid for them. At least nine drivers debt-ridden have taken their lives.
Drivers say that financial pressure has intensified during the pandemic, with few fares to be had, leaving them unable to meet basic costs like insurance and repairs.
For some, the money owed is $50,000 — for others, upwards of $500,000.
“The city has the ability to do something,” said Joseph Jajoute, 65, a longtime driver who owes $440,000. “We are hardworking people.”
Cabbies Offer Route to Relief
Last year, the 21,000-driver New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) proposed a plan to keep drivers afloat. The group called for the city to sharply cap principal and mortgage payments, and act as a backstop as medallions get repossessed and sold at auction.
The NYTWA’s plan would have the city take responsibility for the medallions by buying them back and reselling them. Loans would be limited to $125,000, with a maximum payment of $750 a month.
The city countered with a proposal to offer interest-free loans of up to $20,000, plus $1,500 in monthly payment subsidies for up to six months.
As of this week, the city approved 102 medallion owners for its restructuring plan, representing a forgiveness of $16 million of a $33 million debt, said Taxi & Limousine Commission Deputy Commissioner Allan Fromberg.
The NYTWA’s plan has been backed by City Council candidates and elected officials such as Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani (D-Queens). New York’s congressional delegation signed a letter earlier this month supporting the call for a city-backed guarantee for debt relief.
Still, NYTWA’s leadership said they’ve gotten no response from City Hall. On Wednesday, about a dozen taxi drivers and allies, including Mamdani and City Council candidates Jaslin Kaur, Shahana Hanif and Shekar Krishnan, began a hunger strike to ensure City Hall hears their message.
“What feels more anti-democratic than having City Hall ignore you when you’ve been outside the gates for … 30 days straight,” said Bhairavai Desai, NYTWA’s executive director.
THE CITY spoke to drivers participating in the hunger strike. Here are some of their stories:
‘Owning a Piece of New York’
Augustine Tang’s dad, originally from Hong Kong, drove a yellow taxi. Tang recalls the pride his father took in “owning a piece of New York.”
“He really felt like, you know, the medallion was our way to the middle class,” said Tang, of Downtown Brooklyn.
For a while, the dream rang true and the bills got paid.
His dad didn’t speak about his financial struggles. Tang later learned of loans his father took out against the medallion and of the debt that had ballooned to $530,000. He died in 2015, leaving Tang with nothing but the medallion.
“Half of me wanted to try to carry this legacy and wanted to keep this because I didn’t know anything about the industry,” Tang said, who chose to fight for his dad’s medallion. “I didn’t have to take over the debt. Would I change it? I might have, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t change my journey through this.”
‘In an American Nightmare’
Richard Chow, 63, who lives on Staten Island and is originally from Myanmar, said he’s been at the rally every day. He began driving in 2015, and a year later, he bought his medallion for $410,000 at a city auction.
“I was making the American Dream,” he said. “Now I’m in an American nightmare. We lost everything, we lost our retirement, our investment.
“I lost my brother.”
Chow’s brother, Kenny, who followed him into driving, was saddled with family medical bills and a $700,000 loan on his medallion. He committed suicide three years ago. Chow said his brother’s death set off a cascade of tragedies: Kenny’s wife died of cancer and his daughter was forced to drop out of college.
“Hopefully, someday we are going to see the light,” Chow said. “The sun will come again, that’s what we hope.” He still owes $390,000.
‘The Icon of New York City’
Chime Gyatso used to work in a gift shop selling taxi souvenirs, keychains and shirts — anything with a taxi on it.
A Tibetan who moved to New York City from Nepal, he remembers seeing Times Square for the first time and the yellow cabs on the streets. That’s when 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 began driving in 2000 and nine years later, purchased his medallion for $570,000. Today, he owes the bank $650,000.
He said his pride in his job has since turned to sadness.
“The city threw us in the Hudson River,” said Gyatso, who hopes his two children will not inherit his burden.
‘He Believed in That Medallion
Sancho Persad, 26, began driving in 2014, around when the taxi industry entered its freefall. Both his dad and uncle had worked as cab drivers and he saw an opportunity for steady part-time employment.
“I did not get a taste of the good times,” said Persad, who lives in The Bronx.
He said he currently pays $56,000 annually to lease another person’s medallion. Meanwhile, he’s fighting to get his deceased father’s medallion back from a broker.
“Even before he died, he believed in that medallion,” Persad said.