NY Governor Vetoes Law to Protect Cabbies From Hate Crimes, Other Attacks

NEW YORK -- As dusk fell here one recent evening, scores of the city’s thousands of Muslim cab drivers gathered at the Ar-Rahman mosque in midtown Manhattan to pray.

There was a lurking sense of unease among the drivers as they chatted outside the mosque, brought on by an alleged anti-Muslim attack against one of their own.

The victim, Ahmad Sharif, was stabbed repeatedly by a passenger, Michael Enright, who greeted Sharif in Arabic and chatted about Ramadan before attacking him, according to police reports.

“When I hear about an attack on a driver due to his religion, that really scares me,” said Abdel A., an immigrant from Mauritania, who has been driving a yellow cab for more than 10 years. “We cab drivers have a lot of problems -- customers not paying, drunk customers who are sick on the seats -- that I can get over, but this is frightening.”

“Our names on our licenses posted on the back of the seat identify us as Muslim,” said Mohammed Uddin, a Bangladeshi immigrant. “We can’t really hide.”

For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, driving a cab is one of the most dangerous jobs in New York City: Taxi drivers working 12-hour shifts are 60 times more likely to be killed and 80 times more likely to be robbed than other workers, according to federal Department of Labor figures quoted by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA).

To address those risks, this June N.Y. state lawmakers passed the Taxi Driver Protection Act, which would have increased the penalties for assaults against cab and livery drivers and required all taxicabs to post signs on their back seats warning passengers of the penalties for attacks. But this past weekend, Governor David Paterson vetoed the act.

At issue was the provision that would have instated a mandatory two-year minimum for misdemeanor assaults. In a memorandum accompanying his veto, Paterson acknowledged that cabbies engage in “a dangerous profession” but argued that the bill would have subverted the legal meaning of a misdemeanor, traditionally defined as an offense punishable by a year’s prison term or less, according to the New York Times.

“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s enraging,” Bhairavi Desai, the TWA’s executive director, told the Times. “There’s no doubt that drivers are among the most vulnerable workers in New York State. It was the first time we had hope that a bill would be passed.”

Desai pointed to the attack on a Sharif as an example of the “brutal” working conditions faced by drivers. “This was the desire of a work force to get home safe at the end of a shift,” she said.

While other Muslim cab drivers have been attacked in the past, some commentators said this attack was partly the product of the anti-Islamic language and sentiments that have featured heavily in the raging debate over plans by a New York Sufi imam to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero -- plans that have become a campaign issue in upcoming elections.

“While a minority of has-been politicians spew ignorance and fear, it’s the working person on the street who has to face the consequences,” Desai said at a press conference after Sharif’s attack. “This kind of bigotry only breeds more violence and makes taxi drivers all the more vulnerable on the streets where there are no bully pulpits or podiums to hide behind.”

Several cab drivers interviewed for this article reported experiencing some kind of anti-Muslim slurs or abuse from passengers in recent years.

Assem Kamel, also a Bangladeshi immigrant, said: “A passenger once punched me and said ‘motherf******, terrorist’. I called the police, but what could they do? No one knew who the passenger was.”

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding in America about Islam, fed by the media,” said Walid Mafa, 35, an Algerian immigrant. “I’ve often been cursed for being a Muslim and an Arab. But I don’t let it bother me. If someone curses me for being Muslim, I just pity their ignorance.”

Drivers said more needs to be done to ensure their safety, noting that the plastic inch-thick partition that separates taxi drivers from their passengers did little to protect Sharif.

“The partition is not enough,” said Abdel. “With that in place, it’s up to God to protect us.” Abdel and other drivers said they’d like to see surveillance cameras placed in the back of all cabs.

Uddin noted that he and his colleagues often hesitate to call the police if a customer has been abusive or walked off without paying. “By the time police turn up and you fill out a police report, you’ve lost about an hour of work,” he said.

Mat Mohi, 44, an Egyptian immigrant and a livery cab dispatcher who said he was stabbed by a passenger while driving a taxi in 2003, said: “There’s just not enough to protect yellow cab drivers, who cannot pick and choose their passengers. If they refuse a passenger, you can be fined.”

Sharif expects to be off work for at least four months while he recovers from his wounds. To support him and his family financially in the meantime, colleagues and well-wishers have donated more than $30,000 to a fund set up by the TWA.

You can donate to the Ahmed Sharif Family Support Fund at www.nytwa.org, or send checks and money orders, payable to “Ahmed Sharif,” to Ahmed Sharif, c/o New York Taxi Workers Alliance, 250 Fifth Avenue, Suite 310, N.Y., N.Y. 10001.

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