At first it was manageable – a few days went by easily. Then on the fifth day the world started to go awry.
“As two days turned into five days, I started to feel really weak. Blurred vision, headache, chills. I started to get really cold, ”said Augustine Tang, a 37-year-old New York taxi driver, who went on a hunger strike to force action on the crushing debt many drivers face. under the city’s broken “medallion” system to allow taxis. . “Every day I would wake up thinking, ‘Will today be a day when I’m going to break my promise? “”
When his father died in 2015, Tang took back his locket, which was attached to a loan of $ 530,000. At the time, it didn’t seem like a bad deal. The most recent medallion sale was for $ 800,000. But soon after, as ridesharing apps grew, medallion prices plunged, leaving drivers who had taken out bad loans in hundreds of thousands of debt. On average, they owed $ 500,000 – for medallions now worth maybe $ 100,000.
The city’s so-called back-up plan, announced earlier this year, barely made a dent for many drivers. Tang and a dozen others therefore stopped eating on October 20.
Five days turned to 10. Tang slept in his cab on this trip, out of solidarity and, honestly, he said, to avoid the temptation of snacks at home. Strangers online begged him to stop. Soon the mark of two weeks without food approached. On Wednesday, after visits by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, state lawmakers and hundreds more, the city announced it had reached a landmark new deal to reduce debt and cap payments for drivers concerned.
“We heard rumblings ahead of what was going on. We heard that we were close, ”he said. “We just thought, ‘Is this really going to happen for us? And when they came out, when we finally got to announce it, it was just pure joy. The hunger has stopped. I no longer felt tired. I was only emotional.
When I met Tang in New York on Friday, he looked frail and weak. He still couldn’t handle much more than soft food. He only had the energy for me to take a few pictures.
Breaking her fast marked the end of a 46-day protest for financial relief for New York City taxi drivers. Over the past month, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has organized the closure of bridges, hotel lobbies and the street in front of the mayor’s residence, while maintaining a 24/7 occupation just outside the town hall. They carried signs such as “Forgive the Debt Now” and “No More Suicides.” No more bankruptcies. (While the cost of the lockets rose from $ 200,000 to over $ 1 million between 2002 and 2014, the city itself touted the lockets as a “better than the stock market” investment, which led to many drivers to take out huge loans. The city got about $ 855 million from medallion sales.)
Many taxi drivers hit their breaking point after Kenny Chow’s death in 2018. Chow had purchased a locket for $ 750,000 with fees, securing a down payment in part by leveraging his home. Years later, his wife was diagnosed with advanced cancer, and although he worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, he quickly fell behind on his mortgage and other bills. He was one of nine taxi drivers who committed suicide.
Tang knew Chow well. Chow showed him the ropes very early on after inheriting his father’s locket. “He was like my mentor,” he said. “We met at a taxi rank in Chinatown. We had a coffee. We talked about the locket. He had a lot of hope. But Tang noticed that depression was setting in before he stopped seeing Chow around. “When I found out it tore me apart,” he said.
Soon after, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance organized a vigil for their comrade. “Since then, I’ve been like, ‘This can’t happen to anyone else.’ And then it kept happening, ”Tang told me. He joined the alliance.
Tang’s story is in some ways atypical. Since inheriting his dad’s medallion in 2015, he didn’t drive until the influx of car call apps. He also “always had a driver to help me subsidize the loan,” he said; he took care of his grandmother at night, and he disconnected in Chinatown with his driver. He wasn’t that desperate. But he was animated by the memory of his late friend.
When the alliance first launched the idea of going on a hunger strike, Tang told me that he was among the first to volunteer. “I am one of the youngest pilots. In order for me to put my body on the line, I felt like I was probably the least likely to happen to something bad, ”he said. “I was worried of course. My wife just said to me, ‘You can’t do this. You like to eat. And I do. ”He was very afraid to stop earlier.
Tang shared updates of his online hunger strike, where some praised him and others begged him to stop. “There are so many times I’ve been like, ‘Am I doing a stupid thing?’ There are a lot of people who told us we would never get it. The city made its money. That’s it. This singing thing will never work. But when the AOC came down, and other organizations came down, and members of the state council came to motivate us, that’s the reason we were there so long.
When rumblings hit the camp early in the day before an agreement was reached between the city and the medallion lenders, Tang recalled being in denial. “It’s so funny because Bhairavi [Desai, the leader of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance] texted us while she was still inside the meeting. She said ‘Prepare the avocados.’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ I had completely forgotten that we would have a chance to eat this – I thought to myself, “Do we throw it at town hall if they say no?” “
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city has reached an agreement with its largest medallion lender, Marblegate, to cap loans taken at inflated prices to $ 170,000, and monthly payments will be capped at $ 1,122 per month . “Drivers will no longer run the risk of losing their homes and will no longer be trapped in debt beyond their lifetime,” Desai said.
“Organizing group efforts really works, and for me it’s so amazing to be a part of it,” Tang said. “We didn’t feel like we had a voice, but it was still there. This is the best part of it. And we owe the New York public so much. Organizations have stopped by to tell us about our stories, understand our struggles and offer help. It’s like a creepy movie.
This is not the end, Tang he told me. The alliance hopes to use the momentum to build a better industry, lowering the prices of insurance and maintenance, among other things. But for now, he’s still savoring that taste of his first bite of avocado after 13 days. “It was like heaven. You don’t even understand. I stirred it in my mouth like it was wine. It was crazy how good it was.