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Works of Radical Imagination

With nine weeks left until the highly anticipated publication of Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century, a new collection edited by Anthony Arnove and Haley Pessin, we are proud to share a series of excerpts from the book, which will be published individually each week on the Seven Stories blog until the book's release.

In the first excerpt, originally published as an interview with Sarah Jaffe in The Baffler, Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, offers a personal account of the intersecting, often overlapping struggles of taxi workers and Muslim immigrants in the post-9/11 United States, framed within the context of the Trump administration's executive order banning travelers from five majority-Muslim countries.

A new companion to the classic collection edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century brings together more than 100 activist texts on social and economic justice that have shaped the last 22 years. The editors, Arnove and Pessin, offer a curated collection of voices of hope and resistance from the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo campaign, the struggle for Indigenous liberation, activist groups for immigrant rights, environmentalist movements, disability justice organizing, and frontline workers during the global pandemic who spoke out against the life-threatening conditions of their labor.

Included in this new book are writings by Angela Y. Davis, Nick Estes, Colin Kaepernick, Rebecca Solnit, Christian Smalls, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Howard Zinn, Rev. William Barber, Bree Newsome, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Tarana J. Burke, Dream Defenders, Sins Invalid, Mariame Kaba, Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Linda Sarsour, Chelsea E. Manning, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, Julian Brave NoiseCat, H. Melt, and others. Together, their words remind us that history is made not only by the rich and powerful, but by ordinary people taking collective action.

On January 28, 2017, protesters converged on airports around the country seeking to defend refugees and migrants impacted by President Donald Trump’s executive order imposing an anti-Muslim travel ban. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance called on drivers to refuse to pick up riders at JFK Airport. In an interview with journalist Sarah Jaffe, Bhairavi Desai spoke about this critical protest and the history of taxi worker organizing.

Bhairavi Desai, “A Moment of Urgency” (February 16, 2017), originally published in The Baffler

I am Bhairavi Desai. I am the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. We are a workforce that is largely Muslim and Sikh and almost universally immigrant. Over 94 percent of the drivers in New York City are immigrants, and across the country we are a largely immigrant workforce. When the executive order came down, there was a definite sense of urgency and a lot of anger. We really were just starting to talk about all the different members we knew who would be affected and the fact that even though the majority of our Muslim members are not from one of the seven countries in the executive order, still the hysteria around Islamophobia and the fact that fear leads to hate crimes is a major concern of ours. We felt that we really needed to act.

On Saturday, the day after the executive order was signed, when we saw folks coming out to the airport and protesting, it just felt like the most natural thing to do was for us to stand in solidarity and participate in that action in the best way that we know how, which was by striking and holding down that lot.

I think people were really touched that here was a workforce on the front lines of these hateful policies and also the economic margins of what we have seen is a growing sector of the economy which is piecemealing and turning a full-time profession into part-time gigs. People out there know that taxi drivers are really hardworking and that people really struggle day to day to make ends meet. The idea that they would put their incomes on the line and it would be a workforce that is so vulnerable, particularly in these times, to surveillance and deportations and further policing, that they would be the ones to stand up. It seemed to really touch people and we were so moved by their reaction. I think it was a beautiful start to solidarity with our movement.

A few years ago, people will recall, there was a lot of controversy in New York City that down the street from Ground Zero an Islamic Center had opened. Many of the well-known Islamophobes had taken up the issue as their main cause and created a lot of hysteria around it. Folks like Sarah Palin, who at the time was more relevant than today, heavily weighing in. The rhetoric was quite hateful and strong. Well, in the midst of all of that, one of our members, Ahmed Sharif—this is during Ramadan—he picks up a fare, a pretty young guy. [He] started talking to him and at one point the passenger asked Ahmed, “Are you Muslim?” And when Ahmed answered “yes,” [the passenger] took out a knife and he slashed him across the neck.

We have seen through the years, right after 9/11 I remember, so many neighborhoods, primarily immigrant neighborhoods where taxis would be parked and overnight the tires would be slashed. The yellow cab went from being kind of a cultural icon, a symbol of New York City, to a symbol of Muslim workers. We would see profanities carved into the taxi with a knife. Already, drivers are twenty times more likely to be killed on the job than other workers. We are one of the most visible immigrant and Muslim workforces. Our members tend to be on the frontlines of that hate and violence.

I remember, after 9/11, I remember our members being subject to a lot of verbal abuse and physical assaults, and at the same time they lost so much work, because all of these streets were closed down and they still had to pay for their lease out of pocket. We did a survey and we found that one out of four drivers had received an eviction notice from their home. People were in debt by as much as $25,000 because they were paying for everything out of pocket and just borrowing money and taking out credit cards.

At the same time, they were contending with the fact that this country was beginning to discuss military action within the Middle East in the same countries where many of the members were from. You can’t keep somebody whole and ignore a large part of their life and particularly one when it comes to something as deeply rooted as racism and workplace violence, which given that we represent a workforce that’s in the public, the two often intersect in drivers’ daily lives.

One of the most beautiful things that happened out of the defense of our strike, every single day, we are still getting postcards in the mail from across the country. It is so lovely. You see that each family member has signed their own name because you see the different handwriting on different postcards coming in. And emails. It has been amazing to see. It is such a wonderful feeling, particularly for us, because we are a workforce that is isolated by the nature of the job itself. When you consider 94 percent immigrant, mostly people of color, non-employees on the edge of the economy, we have been politically isolated for so long. It is an amazing feeling for us when the larger community opens their eyes and their hearts to our struggle.

Bhairavi Desai is the President of the National Taxi Workers Alliance and co-founder and Executive Director of the 19,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance. She has been organizing taxi workers since 1996. Read more about her in this Lux Magazine profile by Kim Kelly.

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