“Stay away from Foggy Bottom this Sunday,” read one post on UberPeople, a message board that is popular with the platform’s drivers.
“Looks like a good time to drive out to Deep Creek and chill on the lake,” said another.
“The surge will be wild,” said one person on the message board. “I’m gonna sit this one out though.”
A few joked about what they would do if a white nationalist got in their car, seeking a ride to Lafayette Square. (“Pick them on DuPont, drive them to Leesburg and drop them there telling them that police don’t let you get closer,” one person quipped.)
But drivers’ concerns about safety and potential harassment are very real. Last year, in one incident the day before the Unite for Right protest in Charlottesville, two high-profile white nationalist activists hailed an Uber in D.C., according to BuzzFeed News. The driver was a black woman. When the car passed the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the two men began making racist comments.
The Uber driver stopped the car and demanded that the two passengers get out. The incident was caught on video, and both riders were later banned from the Uber app, BuzzFeed reported.
In preparation for Sunday’s Unite the Right 2, as organizers have dubbed it, Uber has sent a message to its drivers in the Washington region, reminding them of community guidelines — and their right to kick a passenger out a car if they are harassed or threatened.
“Regardless of event, drivers are advised to follow all local laws but have the right to refuse service to riders who are disrespectful or who make them feel unsafe,” the message from Uber said.
Darcy Yee, a spokeswoman for Lyft, said their drivers in the region have been given a similar heads up.
“Their safety comes first. If they ever feel uncomfortable or disrespected by a passenger, they can cancel that ride,” Yee said.
That option has been used by one driver, Tom, who lives in Arlington and asked that his last name not be used out of fear of retribution from Uber. He has driven part-time for the company for more than two years, and once kicked a customer out of his car. In that incident, the man had been drinking, and began loudly using racial epithets. Tom pulled the car over and instructed the man and his girlfriend to find another ride.
“Generally, I don’t have a problem picking anybody up, as long as they’re respectful,” he said.
But for Tom, his decision about whether to venture into downtown Washington on Sunday won’t be based on whether he feels safe, but on whether he stands to make enough money to justify the headache of navigating the traffic, closed streets and police blockades around the White House and Foggy Bottom.
Previously, he said, he worked Inauguration Day and the Women’s March, as well as other major protests in D.C.
“Honestly, I cleaned up on those events,” he said.
But in recent weeks, he said, Uber has changed its calculus on surge pricing and how it compensates drivers for working during high-demand hours. He and other drivers have noticed a precipitous decline in the amount of the cut that they’ve received for peak-period trips, saying that drivers are now receiving a nominal bonus for driving during a surge-pricing window, rather than a percentage of the total fare. In practice, he says, that has meant that he has earned an extra $3 to $5 on long-haul, surge-priced trips where a customer is paying double the usual fare.
With that in mind, Tom said, the prospect of ferrying white nationalists around Sunday is not worth the meager pay he stands to earn.
“I go where the money is,” he said. “But with the march, if it’s going to be like this, it’s not worth all the aggravation dealing with all of that for an extra three to five dollars.”