Video: Striking New York Taxi Drivers Shut Down Brooklyn Bridge in Anti-Debt Protest

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New York City taxi drivers on Wednesday demanding debt relief shut down the city’s historic Brooklyn Bridge to call attention to their plight.

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“We shut down the Brooklyn Bridge because only direct action will get us what we need: medallion debt forgiveness now!” tweeted the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a labor union representing some 21,000 professional drivers.

According to the New York Daily News, medallion debt became an increasing problem in the early 2010s after the rise of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft undermined the professional taxi business. A taxi medallion is a permit to legally operate a taxi in the city – a method of controlling the industry’s size that has been implemented by many cities across the US, including New York City, which has over 13,000 distinctive yellow cabs.

The value of medallions has fallen from a high of over $1 million to $120,000 today, plunging between 3,000 and 5,000 taxi drivers into debt after they borrowed against the value of their medallions. The issue came into the national spotlight in 2019, after a string of suicides by indebted taxi drivers.

​In addition to shutting down traffic on the bridge which spans the East River and connects Long Island and the island of Manhattan, taxi drivers paid a visit to the home of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), also the Senate majority leader. However, the lawmaker is currently in Washington DC, overseeing the second impeachment trial of former US President Donald Trump.

Debt specialist Haywood Miller told the New York Times that many of the drivers who bought the expensive medallions were misled by the predatory practices of banks and private lenders.

“The whole thing was like a Ponzi scheme because it totally depended on the value going up,” he said. “The part that wasn’t fair was the guy who’s buying is an immigrant, maybe someone who couldn’t speak English. They were conned.”

With ridership down by at least 70% due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial screws are being turned on drivers all the harder.

On a city public radio show last week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said help for the drivers depended upon the city getting COVID-19 stimulus money from the federal government – a proposal lawmakers have been hammering out for months.

“If we get money from the Congress, I want to find a way to help these drivers,” de Blasio said. “I don’t have a specific proposal yet… But it hinges on getting the relief we need.”

Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to “pursue litigation” against the federal government if Congress failed to patch up the state’s $15 billion budget hole created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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