Africans Are Dying, Too

The Forgotten Victims of the Livery Cabbie Murders

 A Brooklyn man was pronounced dead at Coney Island Hospital after he was shot once in the groin and tried to drive himself to the hospital. The circumstances of the shooting are unknown. It happened at about quarter-to-one this morning. The man was transported to the hospital after he crashed his car into a building on West 33rd Street, injuring a 30-year-old man and a two-year-old girl. The shooting victim died at 2:25 a.m.
—Associated Press, December 11, 1999

The shooting victim was Sy-Savane Alpha Oumar, a Harlem-based gypsy cabbie who was one of the three reported homicides on "a bloody night in the Big Apple" at the close of the century. He was just a taxi driver, a struggling West African immigrant who drove his unlicensed white Jeep Cherokee with the trademark bombast: "I'm not yellow. I go anywhere." It was Oumar's daring—cruising streets where yellow cabs rarely venture—that got him killed.

"4-3 is dead": Sy-Savane Oumar was gunned down on December 11, 1999.
"4-3 is dead": Sy-Savane Oumar was gunned down on December 11, 1999.

At 11:06 p.m. on December 10, a dispatcher at the popular New Harlem Car Service gave the 30-year-old Oumar his last "shout-out." One of Oumar's "personal callers" wanted to go to Coney Island. Cheikh Amar and Mokhtr Diop—principal owners of the taxi service—remember that the fare said he was calling from 1046 Tyler Avenue in the Bronx. "That person calls him all the time," says Diop, adding that Oumar's other frequent riders, who are chatty and respectful, often use names like Mel and Tom to identify themselves to the dispatcher.

That night, the caller was abrupt. "You're not Mel," the dispatcher said, hesitating.

"I'm his friend," the caller responded.

The dispatcher put the call through. "4-3," she signaled, trying to contact Oumar by the number the base had assigned to him. Oumar accepted. After all, he would not pass up a $45 trip. The dispatcher told the caller that Oumar would be outside his building in 15 minutes. At 11:40 p.m., the customer called back.

"How long, 4-3?" the dispatcher asked Oumar.

"I'm outside!" the driver said. It was the last time anyone from the New Harlem Car Service heard from Oumar, the last of 11 gypsy cab drivers who were killed last year. It is the second time the cab company has lost a driver. The first tragedy occurred in 1994, shortly after New Harlem Car Service was set up. Bakh Diop, Number 9-2, was shot to death in the Bronx. It is an especially solemn occasion when a driver you've traveled with winds up a victim of the gypsy cabjackers. On February 7, last year, this reporter learned that Jose del Carmen Felix, 49, was slain during his regular 12-hour shift at New Brooklyn Car Service. (Felix took the reporter to an assignment in a mostly white section of Canarsie in a pelting rainstorm and waited.) Twin teenage brothers Steven and Carlos Arriaga, 18, of Brooklyn were charged with the murder, along with a third man—Vincent Vasquez, 27.

The brothers were on probation for a 1997 cab robbery in Brooklyn, according to a spokeswoman for the Brooklyn district attorney's office. They were sentenced to five years' probation after pleading guilty to robbing a driver of cash, jewelry, and his car when they were 16. Police were able to identify the twins in part because the dispatcher remembered them coming to the office to get a taxi Saturday morning.

"The dispatcher said, 'You look alike.' They said, 'We're twins,' " said Osiris Frias, a New Brooklyn dispatcher. (Because of a dispute with some Voice reporters, Kevin Davit, a spokesman for Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes, refused to provide information about the case.)

Felix left a wife and eight children, aged 12 to 24. "We lost a 100 percent gentleman," said Frias. "He was a good man, a great father," added his widow, Leonidas Perez, in Spanish as she wept outside the car service office in Williamsburg. "He would always set a good example for his children. He was just a wonderful man."

Sy-Savane Oumar's murder remains unsolved, and that angers his colleagues, who helped raise $4000 to ship his body home. Some African community activists in Harlem contend that because Fernando Mateo, the head of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers—a livery group—is Latino, he is not as concerned about the problems of African drivers. Mateo could not be reached for comment, but he has been outspoken on the murders, declaring that the federation "will not tolerate this." On February 25, after a livery cab driver was shot in Brooklyn during a $170 robbery, Mateo angrily called on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to "take responsibility for these ruthless killings." He added that "if the mayor can take credit for all the good in the city, then it's time for him to explain how the city plans to protect the hard-working livery cab drivers."

No figures about the ethnic breakdown of the victims were available as of late Monday, but clearly the majority have been black or Latino—and immigrants. "We don't feel like the authorities or the cops are doing what they are supposed to be doing," says Dame Babou, the activist North American correspondent for Sud Communications, a Paris-based network of radio stations and newspapers. "I'm absolutely sure that if some young grad school student from the suburbs were killed in his car, you'd be seeing TV cameras and detectives walking the area night and day."

Next Page »