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On London’s Streets, Black Cabs and Uber Fight for a Future

Guerrilla Warfare

Big Ben had just chimed 11 a.m. in its familiar jingle when Mr. Walsh was navigating his cab around Parliament Square, past Westminster Abbey and into an alleyway leading to the headquarters of the governing Conservative Party.

A small but noisy crowd of cabbies were already demonstrating outside the building’s main entrance. Their signs and slogans blamed Uber for an array of wrongs, including pollution and rape — and the government for siding with Uber.

Rachel Whetstone, who was a senior executive at Uber until April, is married to Steve Hilton, a close friend of, and once an adviser to, former Prime Minister David Cameron. When Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, considered clamping down on Uber in 2015, for example by imposing a minimum waiting time of five minutes on riders, some 200,000 Londoners signed a petition in protest and he was reportedly told to back off.

“It stinks,” Mr. Walsh said. (Uber denied that Ms. Whetstone’s close ties to Mr. Cameron had any impact on the mayor’s decision.)

Mr. Cameron campaigned to stay in the European Union, which is one reason that many cabbies voted to leave. “Uber loves Europe,” Mr. Walsh said.

“You basically have governments and big business in bed together,” he said. “The only loser is the working class.”

The protesters slowly marched toward Victoria Street and the headquarters of Transport for London, or T.F.L. Cabbies say that T.F.L. stands for Totally Failing London.

“Look,” said Mr. Walsh, who was back in his cab and now following the march by road. “London has a great history of taking in refugees: the Huguenots, the Russians, the Jews after World War II,” he said. “But there is a difference between refugees and economic migrants.”

“They come here and push down our living standards,” he said. “There comes a day where you have to say, ‘Stop.’”

Getting Out of the Car

Zahra Bakkali and Paul Walsh will meet in a live video on Facebook.

“Brexit” was just that, he said. “We said, ‘Stop.’”

“It’s not a racist thing,” Mr. Walsh added. “Lots of cabbies are Jewish and Irish.”

“It’s about fairness,” he said. “No one’s wages have gone up in the 10 years since the crash, and everyone who’s coming here is getting it on a plate.”

He pulled out his phone to check his Facebook feed. A popular bagel shop on Brick Lane in East London had signed up with Uber Eats, the company’s delivery service. Some drivers were calling for a boycott on the Facebook group Save Our Black Taxis.

“That’s your black cab trade gone,” one comment read, followed by more of the same:

“I don’t need Uber poison.”

“Freaking disgraceful.”

Uber says it receives hundreds of complaints a month from its drivers about abuse from cabbies. Some comments are rude (“Uber slave!”); many are racist (“Go back to your country!”).

Sometimes when a customer cancels, Mrs. Bakkali worries that it is because she is Muslim. In her photograph on the Uber app, she wears a head scarf discreetly tied at the back of her neck.

There are several Muslim women on Mrs. Bakkali’s WhatsApp group Uber Super Ladies (women make up a small minority of Uber drivers and cabdrivers). Some of them met at a party Uber held for them on International Women’s Day. They shared pastries and stories about the relentless hostility coming from cabbies.

“They have all these advantages,” Mrs. Bakkali said: Black cabs can use bus lanes and taxi stands, and be hailed on the street, “but they are angry with us.”

One friend, also a Muslim woman, was so shaken by a recent encounter that she almost quit. A cabdriver had gotten out of his taxi and come toward her car, waving a fist and shouting: “You Muslim, you can’t even drive! Take off that scarf!”

Source: NYT > World

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