Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Negotiating Private Beliefs and Public Behavior With the Meter Running

Last week was a relatively busy one. While the Yankees were being paraded down Broadway and Mayor Bloomberg was holding on determinately for a chance at another term in office, regular people were contending with the social order. Last week Paul Bruno and his partner, Erick Ruales, were ejected from a New York City cab because they were engaged in public displays of affection in the backseat. Bruno and his partner allegedly "sat close," possibly hugging (maybe they shared a kiss), which the driver, Medhat Mohamed, found distracting and felt compromised his ability to get them to their destination. Mohamed was ultimately concerned that their snuggling was a precursor to sex, and two blocks into the ride, demanded that they exit the cab. Bruno and Ruales were appalled at their treatment and have filed a complaint against the driver. The Taxi and Limousine Commission is currently investigating. If Mohamed is found guilty of a "service refusal," he could be fined. According to the Post (which has surprisingly provided in-depth coverage of the story—the newspaper has a reputation for tabloid-quality writing), "the first offense is a $200 to $350 fine, the second a $350 to $500 fine and a 30-day suspension, and the third strike is license revocation." [Image Right: Paul Bruno, Credit NY Post.]

While the Village Voice has wryly noted that being kicked out of a cab is a mark of a true New Yorker, in a city whose history is steeped in diversity, tolerance is a city standard—and in an interesting twist is seemingly being preached on behalf of both sides: The public response has provided support for both Bruno and Ruales, and Mohamed as well. The cabbie's supporters state that he has a right to a work environment where he is both safe and comfortable. And he does. However, he is also a service provider. He is not a city worker, but he engages the public on a regular basis. It is his livelihood. In his line of work, his job is take people—provided they don't present a threat to his well-being and can pay the fare—from Point A to Point B. Of course he has to right to ensure that his personal safety is not compromised—but at what point do such decisions come to be regarded as profiling? Is he given a set criteria against which to measure safety? Hardly, because the issue of personal safety is not a concrete measure. The line separating these types of decisions is a fine one, open to personal beliefs, which is not a fair measure for either party.

In Minnesota, Muslim cab drivers objected to transporting passengers who had been drinking or who were carrying alcohol, such as wine, from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport because it violated the terms of their religion. According to one driver,
"The one who drinks, the one who transports, and the one who makes a business of it, they have the same category."
These drivers argued that transporting passengers who have been drinking or who are carrying alcohol violated their religious freedom. And they are right. However, like Mohamed, they have entered a profession that requires them to work with all members of the public. As a result, the Minnesotan cab drivers have also faced investigations for service refusal, although the Metropolitan Airport Commission is working with them to mediate the situation. They suggested that cabbies who would not transport passengers carrying alcohol install lights on their roofs to indicate their non-alcohol stipulation, but this policy met a poor reception. For now, cabbies must move to the back of the queue, which could mean another three hour wait between fares. This is an industry that relies on people's need to travel when they themselves are unable to to provide the transportation. In New York City, inebriated party-goers are encouraged to take advantage of mass transit options, which includes cabs, to protect both themselves and other motorists from drunk driving accidents. Is there room here for this type of negotiation?

People get kicked out of cabs all the time, for being disorderly, for getting sick, and for getting too frisky in the backseat. But Bruno and Mohamed have raised issues of discrimination and religious beliefs. The medallion holder for Mohamed's cab has stated that according to Islam, displays of affection between same-sex couples are unacceptable. To avoid penalties and possibly losing his license, Mohamed has has to prove that his discomfort was not caused by the sexual orientation of his passengers, that he would have accorded a straight couple with the same treatment. Mayor Bloomberg has denounced the cab driver (with the politician's disclaimer that he does so only if the story is as stated) saying that
"Somebody's orientation has absolutely nothing to do with whether they can ride a taxi. That kind of attitude doesn't fit with what this city's become."
Is there room for Mohamed's religious argument? In discussing this case with someone, he argued time and time again that despite the civil right issues, Mohamed is an independent operator, and like other businesses, he has a right to determine how he will do business and with whom. But in a business that has such a broad reach, is this argument justifiable? When working with the public, where does the line between personal beliefs get drawn? PDA's are everywhere. People hold hands on the street, they may kiss at the bar, and I won't get into what I've seen happen on the subway. If there is to be a standard for public behavior, then it needs to be explicitly stated and enforced—and not by a New York City cab driver, whose sole responsibility is to get his fares to their destination quickly and safely.  But beyond questions of public decency and disorderly conduct, which are fairly subjective judgments, how can such a standard be set? The law states with regard to public decency and disturbing the peace that persons whose behavior
endangers the public peace or health or which openly outrages public decency for which no other punishment is expressly prescribed by this code, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
In other words, there is no concrete measure—anything found offensive can be filed under this heading. Did Bruno and Ruales endanger the public peace? Did they openly outrage public decency? Are they guilty of a misdemeanor? On whose measure are they to be judged? Did Mohamed endanger public peace or outrage public decency? There is clearly a lot of room here for interpretation. And the interpretation can be colored by personal biases. Is this a case of personal belief coloring business practices? Talk back below. [Image Left: Medhat Mohamed. Credit James Messerschmidt, NY Post.]


  1. I like the direction you're going. I'd like to find a way to document everyday cultural customs, beliefs and rituals and track their ancestral origins. Keep a log of why we feel and do things collectively, or among subgroups, and how long have we -- as a culture -- been doing it.

  2. Thanks Varda. Those are seriously culturally introspective aims ... and they fit nicely with Anthropology! Are you an anthro student/professional? I'd strongly suggest that you start writing down your observations—even if they are just short notes. You have to start somewhere!