Politics

“The Hunger Stopped”

What it was like for a New York cabbie to stop eating in front of City Hall for weeks while the city decided his fate.

Augustine Tang in his cab.
Augustine Tang Aymann Ismail

At first, it was manageable—a couple days went by easily. Then, on the fifth day, the world began to go askew.

“As two days turned into five days, I started feeling really weak. Blurred vision, headaches, chills. I started getting really cold,” said Augustine Tang, a 37-year-old New York City taxi driver, who set on a hunger strike to force action on the crushing debt many drivers face under the city’s broken “medallion” system to license taxis. “Every day I woke up thinking, ‘Is today going to be a day I’m going to break my promise?’”

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When his father died in 2015, Tang took over his medallion, which was attached to a $530,000 loan. At the time, it didn’t seem like a bad deal. The most recent medallion sale had been for $800,000. But before long, as ride-hailing apps grew, the medallion prices plunged, leaving drivers who had taken out exploitative loans in hundreds of thousands in debt. On average, they owed $500,000—for medallions now worth perhaps $100,000.

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The city’s so-called relief plan, announced earlier this year, barely made a dent for many drivers. So Tang and about a dozen others stopped eating on Oct. 20.

Five days became 10. Tang slept in his taxi during this stretch, for solidarity and, honestly, he said, to avoid the temptation of snacks at home. Strangers online pleaded with him to stop. Soon, the two-week mark with no food approached. On Wednesday—after visits by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state lawmakers and hundreds of others—the city announced it had reached a landmark new deal to reduce the debt and cap payments for affected drivers.

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“We heard rumblings beforehand about what was happening. We heard that we were close,” he said. “We were just like, ‘Is this really going to happen for us? And when they came out, when we finally got to announce it, it was just pure joy. The hunger stopped. I didn’t feel tired anymore. I was solely emotional.”

When I met Tang in New York on Friday, he looked frail and weak. He still couldn’t handle much more than soft food. He only had the energy for me to take a few photos.

Augustine Tang next to his cab.
Augustine Tang on Friday. Aymann Ismail.
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Breaking his fast marked the end of a 46-day-long protest for financial relief for New York’s cabbies. Over the last month, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance organized shutdowns of bridges, hotel lobbies, and the street in front of the mayor’s residence, all while maintaining a 24-7 occupation just outside City Hall. They held signs like “Debt Forgiveness Now” and “No More Suicides. No More Bankruptcies.” (As the cost of medallions rose from $200,000 to more than $1 million between 2002 and 2014, the city itself touted the medallions as an investment “better than the stock market,” leading many drivers to take out huge loans. The city earned an estimated $855 million from medallion sales.)

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Many taxi drivers hit their breaking point after the death of Kenny Chow in 2018. Chow had purchased a medallion for $750,000 with fees, securing a down payment partly by leveraging his home. Years later, his wife was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and although he worked 14-hour days seven days a week, he soon fell behind on his mortgage and other bills. He was one of nine taxi drivers to die by suicide.

Tang knew Chow well. Chow showed him the ropes early on after he inherited his father’s medallion. “He was like my mentor,” he said. “We met at a taxi stand in Chinatown. We had a coffee. We talked about the medallion. He was very hopeful.” But Tang noticed the depression creep in before he stopped seeing Chow around. “When I found out, it ripped me apart,” he said.

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Shortly after, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance organized a vigil for their comrade. “Ever since then, I was like, ‘This can’t happen to anybody else.’ And then it kept on happening,” Tang told me. He joined the alliance.

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Tang’s story in some ways is atypical. Since inherited his father’s medallion in 2015, he wasn’t driving before the influx of car-hailing apps. He also “always had a driver to help me subsidize the loan,” he said; he took care of his grandma at night, and he would switch off in Chinatown with his driver. He wasn’t quite so desperate. But he was driven by the memory of his late friend.

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When the alliance first floated the idea of doing a hunger strike, Tang told me he was among the first to volunteer. “I’m one of the younger drivers. For me to put my body on the line, I felt I was probably least likely for anything serious to happen to me,” he said. “I was worried of course. My wife was just like, ‘You can’t do this. You love to eat.’ And I do.” He was most scared he would quit early.

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Tang shared updates of his hunger strike online, where some praised him and others pleaded with him to stop. “There’s so many times I just thought, ‘Am I doing a stupid thing?’ There’s many people that told us we’d never get it. The city made their money. That’s it. This chanting stuff will never work. But when AOC came down, and other organizations came down, and members of the state council came to give us motivation—they’re the reason why we stayed out there for so long.”

When the rumblings hit the camp early in the day before an agreement was reached between the city and the medallion lenders, Tang recalled being in denial. “It’s so funny because Bhairavi [Desai, the leader of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance] texted us when she was still inside the meeting. She said ‘Get the avocadoes ready.’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ I totally forgot we’d get to eat that—I was like, ‘Are we throwing it at City Hall if they say no?’”

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Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city reached an agreement with its largest medallion lender, Marblegate, to cap loans taken at inflated prices at $170,000, and monthly payments will be capped at $1,122 a month. “Drivers will no longer be at risk of losing their homes, and no longer be held captive to a debt beyond their lifetime,” Desai announced.

“Group effort organizing really works, and for me to be a part of that is so amazing,” Tang said. “We didn’t feel like we had a voice, but it was always there. That’s the most beautiful part of this. And we owe the New York City public so much. Organizations stopped by and talked to us about our stories and understand our hardship, and offer help. It’s like a freaking movie.”

This isn’t the end, Tang he told me. The alliance is hoping to use the momentum to build a better industry, lowering the prices for insurance and maintenance, among other things. But for now, he’s still savoring that taste from his first bite of the avocado after 13 days. “It was like heaven. You don’t even understand. I was swishing it around in my mouth like it was wine. It was crazy how good it was.”

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