City Taxi & Limousine Commissioner Meera Joshi was chased away from a vigil held in honor of late Uber driver Fausto Luna on Sunday, a sign of drivers’ increasing distress over the financial hardships plaguing the industry.
Chanting “get out,” a small group of taxi and ride-hail drivers followed Joshi down Fort Washington Avenue as the commissioner retreated into the 175th Street subway station during the Washington Heights vigil for Luna, 57, who took his life late last month, according to driver advocates. Luna’s death marked the city’s seventh suicide among its professional drivers since last November. Several attendees held signs calling for Joshi’s firing.
“It’s convenient to blame a person and I understand and if I need to be the subject of people’s anger, that’s fine, I can take it. It doesn’t bother me,” Joshi said, before she was followed down the block. “But I don’t know that it really addresses the fundamental underpinnings of the situation that drivers are finding themselves in now.
“We wanted to show respect for the family, but if they want to turn it into something else that has nothing to do with suicide; that has nothing to do with a vigil; that has nothing to do with recognizing all the economic pressures going on — if you want to reduce it to firing me, go ahead,” Joshi continued.
Luna was struck and killed by an A train at the 175th Street subway station on Wednesday, Sept. 26, according to the NYPD. Though further details surrounding Luna’s death were not immediately clear, taxi and ride-hail advocates described Luna’s death as a suicide and pointed to reports by El Diario and The New York Post that Luna was depressed over a debt he had owed.
Alix Anfang, a spokesman for Uber, said that Luna had driven for the company since 2013, had consistent earnings since and owned his vehicle outright. Efforts to reach Luna’s family were unsuccessful.
“We are devastated by this news and our deepest sympathies go to Mr. Luna’s family and loved ones during this difficult time,” Anfang said in a statement.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance organized the vigil outside of the 175th Street subway station. Luna’s family, or those who knew him directly, were not present.
Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the alliance, said Joshi had attended a driver vigil in the past and had reached out to let the Alliance know she would attend Sunday’s event. Desai was regretful over how Joshi was received, but said it reflected the anger and anxiety felt by drivers, many of whom blame the city for the rapid proliferation of vehicles affiliated with ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, which have driven down the price of taxi medallions and industrywide wages.
“It’s a sign of how palpable the frustration is among drivers. I think that a lot of people blame the TLC for the oversaturation of the cars, but they actually don’t realize that the TLC didn’t have the authority — that that was all on the City Council,” Desai said. “I really appreciate that she came. I think it took a lot of courage and compassion to come.”
As Joshi left, TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg briefly exchanged words with attendees of the vigil.
“You’re doing this over politics,” Fromberg said. “Today was about [Luna’s] family.”
Afterward, Fromberg said in an email that he and Joshi decided to leave so as to not “detract from the unity that by all rights should have been at the center of the event.
“Under no circumstances, however, does this in any way diminish our commitment to drivers, or dissuade us from the work we’re doing to help them,” Fromberg continued.
This summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law a City Council bill that outlined an unprecedented one-year cap on ride-hail vehicles while the city studies the impact of the growing industry. He also signed a Council bill to establish a wage floor for the now roughly 80,000 ride-hail drivers working in New York.
The Council is currently considering a second package of bills that, in part, would establish at least one driver assistance center that would offer financial and mental health counseling as well as referrals to nonprofit organizations for additional assistance.
The TLC has advised workers to call the Driver Protection Unit at 212-676-1201 for assistance in finding financial counseling. Those coping with stress, depression or anxiety can call 888-NYC-WELL or text “Well” to 65173 for free, confidential mental health support in more than 200 languages.