It's a very good time in New York City to be black and hailing a cab. The condition, herewith coined as "HWB" (Hailing While Black), seems to have abated. Gone, for the time being, are the episodes when HWB leaves you standing on the curb, your hand in the air, while the taxicab approaching you drives a few feet onward for a white passenger who has suddenly appeared. This the cabbies typically do, on a theory that the white passenger is less likely to stiff them, stab them or leave them stuck in a neighborhood where there aren't any new fares to pick up. (That is how cabbies themselves describe their fears).
It happens so regularly here (and in the District) that people factor it into their routine. Many African American men won't even bother to try to hail a cab. And black women get passed up too, though perhaps not as often.
When it happened to him, actor Danny Glover said enough is enough. In Harlem last month, several cabs refused to stop for him, his daughter and her friend. Then later that night, down near Soho, a cabbie who did stop for them refused to allow Glover to sit in the front seat, though taxi rules allow it. It would have been more comfortable for the large-framed actor, who explained he had a hip ailment.
He called the police and filed a complaint with the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission. He wanted to raise awareness about the issue, to open a dialogue about it, to get the communities involved to talk to one another. He has succeeded, to an extent, sparking public debate about the issue and a crescendo of fresh complaints about it.
As is his bent, however, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has declared total war, and now even those who wanted city action--included Glover--worry that it has gone too far. Instead of opening a dialogue, Giuliani launched a crackdown and ordered police and taxi inspectors to seize the licenses and impound the cabs of drivers who discriminate based on race. Of 1,600 undercover taxi rides taken since Friday, investigators found 13 drivers either refusing to pick up a passenger or refusing to take a passenger to the requested destination.
It's a small number, but legal rights groups say it's the principle that counts.
"A little thing called the Constitution," said Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, Glover's attorney. "I think there are serious due process issues there, almost conviction before trial."
Another "little thing" that some here think is at play: Giuliani has had his troubles with New York's African American and other minority groups, and with his U.S. Senate run against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton coming up, perhaps this was a way to win some votes.
"I think it's a campaign issue," said Chaumtoli Huq, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It's the Senate race next year."
Huq's group, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Employment Law Project, is exploring the legal issues surrounding the new taxi crackdown.
More than half of New York City's taxi drivers are of South Asian descent, predominantly immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Huq said their status makes them potentially vulnerable to political manipulation.
Under the new crackdown, an earlier police and taxi commission program called "Operation Refusal" has been given sharper teeth.
Allan J. Fromberg, an assistant taxi and limousine commissioner, explained that the city's normal rules call for a schedule of fines, starting with a $200 penalty for a first conviction for unlawfully refusing to ferry a passenger.
But in situations deemed to involve "public safety, health and general welfare," the commission's chairperson can invoke a different set of rules that allow for summary suspension of taxi licenses in the field in certain circumstances, such as the latest sting operations, said Fromberg. TLC officials believe they are on firm legal footing, but that may be tested in court.
Out on the streets, meanwhile, both drivers and passengers are watchful. On the first day of the crackdown, Saeed Ahmed, 34, a driver of seven years from Pakistan, did not flinch or hesitate an instant when a black passenger got in his cab in Manhattan and asked to be taken to East New York, Brooklyn, the city's most crime-ridden neighborhood. East New York frightens him, he said, but added "I never refuse anybody whether it's black or white."
Another cabbie, Vermin Navin, was minding his P's and Q's so completely that he turned and asked politely, "How would you like to go," when this passenger requested Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, another high-crime zone.
Navin, 21, arrived here from India two years ago and has been driving a taxi for six months. He says he takes passengers without regard to race, but clearly associates ill treatment with black people.
"I'm not worried," he starts. "I believe in God. That's all. If somebody rob you? They rob you. If somebody don't pay you? They don't pay you. Some black people give you good tips."
Some recent taxicab reforms in New York:
* Mandatory drug testing.
* Increase of liability and no-fault insurance levels.
* Persistent Violator Program that targets recidivist rule violators.
* Required defensive driving training.
* Taxi rider's "Bill of Rights."
* Redesigned taxi school curriculum including geography, map reading and customer service.
* Spot inspections of cabs at fleet garages.
* One-year probationary period for incoming licensees.
SOURCE: New York Taxi and Limousine Commission
CAPTION: New York Mayor Giuliani.
CAPTION: Above, Detective Clifton Hollingsworth, left, and Officer Joel Ottley take part in "Operation Refusal" monitoring initiative last week. At left, actor Danny Glover and daughter Mandisa Glover after filing discrimination complaint on Nov. 2.