D.C. taxicab commissioner seems to have an issue with freedom of the press

John Kelly
Columnist June 22, 2011

As riots go, the kerfuffle that erupted Wednesday morning at a meeting of the D.C. Taxicab Commission was a pretty benign affair. Not a single dumpster was set on fire. Not a single car was overturned.

In other words, we’re not talking Vancouver after the Stanley Cup here.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

And yet “riot” is what the Park Police called it, and it’s the reason two men were led away in handcuffs. That bothered me, and it should bother you.

Honestly, the only reason I was there was for the dogs. A couple of years ago, I wrote about how visually impaired citizens were complaining that some D.C. taxicabs refused to take their service animals. I saw it happen to a guy named Jim Dickson. A cabdriver peeled away from in front of the Mayflower rather than allow Pearson, Jim’s black Lab, on board.

Jim and others were going to testify in front of the commission.

But in case you hadn’t noticed, the world of D.C. cabs is a pretty tense one right now. It has been since Adrian Fenty was mayor. Many cabbies feel Fenty sold them down the river. It’s not so much that they mind the meters he instituted, it’s that they don’t think the rate is high enough. They had great hopes for Vincent Gray, but now they think he’s more of the same. Many independent drivers and smaller cab companies think that a proposed move to a medallion system will just concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few big cab companies.

So that was the psychological setting for Wednesday’s meeting. The physical setting was an auditorium in the U.S. Park Police’s building on Anacostia Drive SE. This will factor into the events, because when you are in a police building, the police are never far away.

Things got off to a bad start when commission interim chair Dena Reed got snippy with a man in a white shirt after he placed a voice recorder on the table in front of her. She told him to remove it. He said: “Miss Reed, this is a public meeting. This is not your table.”

She forbade him to leave it there, so he sat on the floor holding it up. I also heard her call security.

When the floor was opened for public comments, the man with the recorder, blogger Pete Tucker from TheFightback.org, made a few: He complained that Reed was not following the city’s open meetings law. Then he sat down.

A few more people spoke. Then, suddenly, a clot of Park Police officers frogmarched Tucker out of the auditorium. Apparently, he had used his phone to take a photo of the commissioners at the table, something Reed had forbidden. (“Disruptive,” she told me later.)

And that’s when the “riot” broke out. Tucker’s blog has been supportive of the drivers, and many of them leapt to their feet.

“We need the reporter here,” one cabbie said.

“This is America,” said another.

Some drivers said they should leave in solidarity with Tucker. Others said they should stay.

“If we don’t let them bring that guy [back] and we go back, we’re fools,” said one driver.

“He’s welcome to come back,” the Park Police’s Lt. Roxanne Brown said. Except he wasn’t. He had been placed in handcuffs and taken away. So was Jim Epstein, a reporter for libertarian Reason.TV.

Reed had asked for them to be removed, and they were removed. They were charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful entry/remaining.

I followed the boycotting drivers out of the building. “He did nothing. He never disturbed the meeting,” said driver Negede Abebe.

When I tried to go back in to the meeting, a very large uniformed Park Police officer barred my way. Just following orders, he shrugged.

I don’t know if there were any reporters in there while Reed and the taxicab commission finished their business. Hmmm. I wonder if that’s what she wanted in the first place.

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