D.C. City Council member John A. Wilson filed a formal complaint with the city's Office of Human Rights yesterday, accusing taxicab drivers in the city of willfully refusing to pick up blacks, especially black men and blacks going to far Northeast and Southeast Washington.
Wilson, who said in an interview that nine cabs had passed him by early Thursday evening as he stood on a downtown street corner, said, "It saddens me to have to file this complaint since so many of our taxicab drivers are black and if anyone should know better, they should."
Anita B. Shelton, director of the human rights office, said her office would conduct an investigation. "The record is clear in the community as to the problem," Shelton said. "We have taken the position that we are going to hold the cab companies responsible for what is happening."
Wilson's complaint against 59 cab associations and 505 independent cab owners brings to the surface a pet peeve of many blacks in the city, rich and poor alike. It is a touchy issue because it involves what amounts to discrimination by blacks against other blacks.
"Some say we don't tip. Others say that we rob them," Wilson said. "But department stores have to deal with shoplifting, and if they said none of us could come in because some of us shoplift, that wouldn't make any sense either."
"When the taxis ask for a rate increase, they talk about being a part of the total transportation system," Wilson said. "After the changes are made, they act like they aren't a part of the system."
William J. Wright, chairman of the Taxicab Industry Group, said Wilson's action had "far-reaching implications" about the future of taxicab ownership in the city. He linked it to earlier unsuccessful proposals by Wilson (D-Ward 2) to replace the zone system with meters and to set a limit on the number of cabs in the city.
"That, in our opinion, would have done away with minority ownership in the city," Wright said of the earlier proposals. "I think what Mr. Wilson is doing now could lead to the same goal."
Wright said that the cab industry is trying to "educate" drivers "that it is wrong to pass up persons purely because of race.
"On the other hand," he said, "there are many drivers that have been killed in this city taking people to parts of the city that he is talking about. Unfortunately, the people who have done the killing are black. It's a human element."
Shelton said that the human rights office could assess fines against cab companies whose drivers were found to have discriminated.
Edward M. Meyers, a special assistant to Mayor Marion Barry, said drivers might be more willing to take persons to distant parts of the city if the Public Service Commission grants the drivers a proposed 10.5 percent rate increase.
That increase would boost by 15 cents the cost of a single passenger trip from downtown to far Southeast, from $2.50 to $2.65.