An unknown Portland taxi driver, angry over a likely City Council decision to double taxi license fees paid by drivers and require them to install video cameras in their taxis, abandoned his cab at the front door of City Hall overnight Wednesday. Around midnight, the man drove his cab over the curb onto the City Hall patio, left the lights and flashers on, locked the doors and walked away, stunning curious members of the Portland Peace Encampment across 4th Avenue who looked on.
A flustered City Hall security guard told an Indymedia reporter on the scene that he was not permitted on the patio of City Hall. When the reporter replied that the security guard was sorely mistaken in his understanding of the law, the guard retorted, "Why don't you just go away?" and walked back into the building to call police.
Several minutes later, a number of Portland police officers arrived to investigate, asking onlookers if they knew the identity of the cab's owner. The officers seemed oblivious to the reason for the cab driver's action and were unaware of the proposed rule requiring video cameras in all Portland taxis by July 1, 2004. Informed of the most likely reason for the action, cab drivers' resistance to the massive fee increases and the invasion of privacy of cab drivers and their passengers, one officer commented that the driver faced towing costs for the vehicle's removal.
About 170 of the city's 650 licensed cab drivers signed a petition against the fees and presented it to the city council during the Wednesday morning council meeting where the rule change was discussed. Four of the five council members, all except Dan Saltzman, said they would vote for the new rule following some minor changes. Commissioner Randy Leonard spearheaded the new law, inspired by a similar requirement in New York City and the recent murder of Portland cab driver Grigory Rogozhnikov.
Drivers who oppose the rule say the increased fees will be a huge economic burden in a poor economy where many drivers are already struggling to make a living. They also are worried about being watched and recorded while on duty and fear that members of the public will opt for other means of transportation to avoid being taped in cabs. Commissioner Saltzman worried that people such as drunk drivers will opt to drive when they might otherwise take a cab.
The rule supposedly limits the use of the tapes to the Portland Police Bureau for use in criminal investigations, but the meaning or limitation of 'criminal investigation' remains unclear. Whether the videotapes would be accessible to agents of the Portland police or the federal Department of Homeland Security for surveillance of non-criminals remains to be seen, but the USA Patriot Act would seem to give a green light to further erosions of personal privacy through the collection of conversations held in Portland's cabs.
A sign placed in the window of the abandoned cab read, "City Turns Deaf Ear to Taxi Issues". The sign also contained an email address: TaxiActivist@hotmail.com. An email sent by an Indymedia reporter to the email address seeking comment was not immediately returned.
A tow truck from A&B Towing arrived on the scene about 30 minutes after the cab was abandoned and towed the vehicle away. One female Portland police officer stayed on the scene for over an hour, talking with three members of the Portland Peace Encampment about topics ranging from the American war in Iraq, police overtime for working antiwar protests, police brutality, health care, and pResident Bush's upcoming visit to Portland. The officer confirmed that Bush would be in town on August 21 when she said she will be working overtime on her day off.