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."

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.

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."

Saime Cesay, 49, a native of Gambia, who emigrated to America in 1985, survived an attempt on his life in 1993. He peels back the collar on his shirt to show the long scar a would-be killer's shank left on his neck. It was around 10 one night when Cesay's black Dodge with no partition stopped on Rosedale Avenue in the Bronx as the light turned yellow. A young black man hailed him. He asked Cesay to wait while he went into a building to get his girlfriend. But the passenger returned with two other men.

On approaching 100th Street, one of the men directed Cesay to turn left at the light. "When I make the left, two other guys are standing there and [the passengers] start fighting with me inside the car. [One of them had] a little knife and he cut me. But I am lucky. They never asked me for money. I had $80. It was winter, very cold that day."

Cesay stumbled out of his cab. "When I get out the car, I fell down. There was a lady in the window and they ran. Maybe they wanted to kill me, I don't know. I felt they were doing it because I was African. I felt that way and I ran. Two boys followed me. I am looking for cops but I don't find them." Cesay went home and his brother took him to a hospital. The next day he was back doing the job he says "nobody likes." In 1998, Cesay's brother, Katim, 51, fell prey to gypsy cabjackers. "They robbed him on Anderson Avenue in the Bronx, two Spanish guys. They took his watch and money." Last November, four black men bumrushed Katim's black Lincoln after it stopped on Fifth Avenue between 124th and 125th streets in Harlem shortly before midnight. One stuck a knife in Katim's ribs, pried him from behind the steering wheel, and stole his car. Katim gave up the gypsy cab business and moved to Atlanta. But his brother kept on working. He hooked up with the New Harlem Car Service, where he is known as Number 7-2.

Saime Cesay arrived at the base in the morning as news about the slaying of Sy-Savane Oumar began to spread. He had not heard what had happened to his dear friend. The cabbies mingling outside the base on Frederick Douglass Boulevard told him 4-3 was dead. "I saw him last night," Cesay said, his hand cupped over his mouth in disbelief.

"Somebody killed him in Coney Island," one driver said. In tribute to 4-3, Cesay parked his gray Lincoln and did not work for the remainder of the day. But two days later, he was ripped off. A couple whom Cesay had picked up on the street asked him to take them to Fordham Road. "When we got there, the man and lady don't want to pay me. I think about it. I say, 'I don't wanna make problem.' " They beat Cesay out of an $8 fare.

In anger, Cesay told his passengers, "That's why the Spanish [livery drivers] don't take you." (Babou says that while he sympathizes with Cesay's outrage, he does not share the sentiment that Latino taxi drivers, like their yellow cab counterparts, are bypassing African Americans for racist reasons. "I've lived in Harlem for 11 years now, and I really don't feel any kind of resentment between the two," he claims. "What you see is that the same people that are bringing security problems into the community are the same people who we are fearful of. Any old lady, whether or not she is African American, any regular nine-to-five person, is fearful of the gangs around the corner.") Cesay believes if he'd prolonged the confrontation the couple would have attacked him. So he has a new policy. "People are standing in the street and they don't have money and when they get in your car, they don't tell you. [From now on] if I take anybody and you tell me you don't have money I tell you, 'Open the door and get out, because I don't want problems.' "

Dame Babou says despite the killings of livery cabbies, more and more Africans are getting behind the wheel. "What is amazing is that they are desensitized [to the murders] because they have happened so many times. . . . We are almost fatalistic about these things. They say, 'Maybe not me,' and when it hits home it's always hard."


Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas and Associated Press

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