Africans Are Dying, Too

The Forgotten Victims of the Livery Cabbie Murders

Babou, a native of Senegal, also lashed out at African American political leaders he feels aren't doing enough to focus attention on the plight of black gypsy cabbies. Had Oumar died under circumstances similar to the Diallo shooting, he reiterates, the press would have showed up. But "nobody knows his name." Babou sighs. "His name is not as famous as Amadou Diallo. The Amadou Diallo thing was suitable for politicians to rally around. Oumar is just another homicide statistic."

This year started violently for livery cabbies. Two deaths over the weekend marked the sixth and seventh drivers killed on city streets since January. The slaughter began with a driver who was killed in Queens on New Year's Day. Two weeks later, another driver was murdered. Two more were slain in February, and two weeks ago, a fifth driver was killed in Brooklyn.

"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.

Last Friday, the taxi community mourned the death of Luis Francisco Perez, who would have celebrated his 30th birthday on Monday. The Dominican Republic native, who is survived by his wife and 15-month-old child, was shot once in the head inside his four-door Lincoln Town Car about 12:30 a.m. Friday in the Bronx. At 2:19 a.m. Saturday, Jean Scutt, 43, a Haitian immigrant who lived in East Flatbush, was found in his idling Lincoln Town Car at Newkirk and Nostrand avenues in Brooklyn, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the neck, by pedestrians who flagged down a police car. He was pronounced dead at Kings County Hospital. And about the time of the attack on Scutt, another cabbie survived a harrowing encounter: A passenger put a gun to his head and ordered him to drive to a Bronx location.

Calling the cabbie killings "outrageous crimes," Giuliani on Saturday announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or conviction in any cabbie murder. The police department has created a special task force in hopes of addressing the dangers livery drivers face. One plan is for more than 300 members of the Street Crime Unit to protect drivers, with some cops posing as cabbies. The city also is creating a $5 million Safety Grant program to help drivers install bulletproof partitions and digital cameras in their cars in hopes of stopping the spate of cabbie murders.

Yellow Medallion cabs mostly serve lower Manhattan and can be hailed on the street, but most livery cab work is in the outer boroughs and on-call. The more than 41,000 livery cab drivers in thecity, who own their cars, are usually dispatched.They earn about $100 a day (insurance and other expenses cut their take to about a third of the total), but to make more money, most livery drivers also pick up street fares. Some friends of Sy-Savane Oumar speculate that he may have been trying to make extra money and picked up a killer after dropping off his mystery Bronx passenger. Coney Island detectives investigating the case have no leads. "The police there don't know exactly what happened," laments Mokhtr Diop.

Fellow gypsy cabbies remember Oumar as a tireless worker who always wired money to his family back in Kindia-Comba, the agricultural village he left behind in Guinea six years ago to chase the American dream. About an hour before Oumar got the fatal call, he sat in his Jeep with a friend talking about his past life as an African trader and the dreams he would turn into reality some day. "He loved America," says the friend, adding that Oumar was married but had no children. On the day the time-strapped Oumar died, he'd scheduled a meeting with his nephew from Georgia and a niece who was flying in from Paris to visit. "He was supposed to come to my house to see my sister," the nephew said.

Dame Babou Reflects on the 1980s, when criminals declared war on the mostly African immigrant taxi community in Harlem. Their ranks were decimated by a rash of killings. "From 1986 to now, at least 60 African cab drivers have been murdered," claims Babou.

Between 1984 and 1986, a wave of immigrants from Senegal, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast flooded New York City. Most of them lived in cheap Midtown hotels or settled in Harlem. They spoke mainly French, Wolof, Fulani, and Dioula languages. The new immigrants started driving illegal taxis to eke out a living and wound up filling the void left by yellow cab drivers who refused to go Uptown.

"They worked very long hours—13 to 15 hours a day—barely having the time to eat and sleep," Babou recalls. As the activist put it, the drivers, many of them unlicensed, became "the laughingstock" of the African American community "because they didn't speak the language very well, and were easy marks" for passengers who cheated them out of fares, and for killers. "They didn't know the city very well," Babou says. "They didn't know where the hot spots were, where they should not go. . . . I do remember the 28 Senegalese cab drivers who were killed. They were killed in . . . maybe two years."

With the advent of cab companies like New Harlem Car Service, Africans learned to avoid the pitfalls of a dangerous job. "I can say that since they started having their own base with a radio, it has really gotten a lot better. They know the city a little better, and can identify the dangerous calls."

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