The D.C. Taxicab Commission recently expanded its war on D.C. taxicab drivers by going after the journalists. After two independent journalists were arrested by U.S. Park Police officers at a June 22 public hearing held by the commission two weeks ago, dozens of angry drivers walked out in protest.
One might ask what sort of behavior would provoke the arrests of journalists covering a public meeting. In this case, the two journalists — Pete Tucker of TheFightBack.Org and Jim Epstein of Reason TV — were recording the meeting, and when Tucker took a picture, he was told by a commission inspector to stop. Shortly after Tucker took another picture, Park Police arrived and asked him to leave. Tucker remained seated and reminded the officers that he was a journalist and that this was a public meeting. At that point, he was cuffed and detained on charges of disorderly conduct. Epstein captured Tucker’s arrest on his cellphone camera before he, too, was arrested as he tried to leave. The video has since gone viral, to the embarrassment of the Taxicab Commission and the Park Police.
The commission’s interim chair, Dena Reed, imposed a ban on recordings at commission meetings back in May. Reed argued that cameras and recording devices would be “disruptive.” Before the arrests, her argument sounded rather dubious. But after watching footage of the incident, we now know that Reed’s fears about disruption were not so unfounded. After all, she is the one who apparently intended to bring in law enforcement to remove anyone who dared defy her censorship decree — and on June 22, that proved to be quite disruptive.
For anyone following the situation facing D.C. cab drivers, Reed’s actions were not entirely shocking. She has led the Taxicab Commission on a warpath against drivers, who are also under the threat of a proposed restructuring of the city’s cab industry that could lead to more than 4,000 drivers losing their jobs.
The subject of the June 22 meeting was the commission’s proposed changes to Title 31, the legal regime that governs the cab industry. The rewriting of the existing framework would confer more authority on inspectors who routinely ticket drivers and suspend licenses for minor and arbitrarily decided infractions. The changes would also require drivers to buy a new vehicle every five years and allow a driver to be fined up to $1,000 for having over- or under-inflated tires.
Most D.C. cabbies are independent drivers who belong to associations or driver-run companies. They have come together under the leadership of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers not only to oppose the changes to Title 31 but also to organize against the D.C. Council’s attempts to impose what’s known as a “medallion” system.
Drivers would be required to own a medallion, which would vary in price from $250 to $10,000, in order to operate a taxi. Medallions have existed in many cities, such as New York and Chicago, for decades. The cost of purchasing a medallion would rise dramatically once they are required, as evidenced by the effect of medallion systems in other cities whose fares, on average, are 25 percent higher than in cities without medallions.
The medallion system being proposed for the District would empower a few kingpin company owners to corner as much of the D.C. cab market as possible while driving thousands of mostly African immigrant drivers out of the industry. In a city with more than 10,000 licensed cab drivers, the bill before the D.C. Council would limit the number of medallions to 4,000, which would force thousands of drivers to either work for the larger companies that can afford the medallions or leave them without a job. The cost of the medallions would be passed on to riders in the form of higher fares and longer wait times.
Connections between large company owners and the lobbyist who wrote the medallion bill — and that lobbyist’s ties to the D.C. Council member who introduced the bill — suggest that old-fashioned cronyism is at work.
Thanks to the pressure that the drivers’ association has applied on the D.C. Council, hearings on the medallion bill have been canceled for now. But the drivers still face Reed and her undemocratic efforts to ram through rule changes that will harm them.
In May, when drivers attempted to submit 900 petition signatures to the Taxicab Commission in opposition to Reed’s changes, the drivers were locked out of the commission’s office. Afterward, Reed referred to the group of drivers as “a mob.”
The recent arrests, however, have put the spotlight on the commission’s attacks.
It’s time for drivers and passengers to stand up against the assault on drivers and the journalists bringing this story to the public eye. This is not just a fight to save drivers’ jobs. It’s about preserving the dignity of drivers and passengers who deserve a basic level of fairness that the Taxicab Commission is currently not granting them.
The writer is an independent labor journalist in Washington.