He had dealt with his share of messed up customers. After all, Haroon Paryani had been driving a cab in Chicago for 18 years. On February 4, 2005, Michael Jackson, a 37 year old CPA for the City of Chicago, according to eye witnesses, hijacked Haroon Paryani's cab and ran over him several times, rolling over the father of four's head and neck.
Local Police say numerous witnesses identified Jackson in more than one lineup as the man who killed 61-year-old Paryani. Haroon Paryani was a Pakistni-American.
Jackson has a previous DUI on his record. His attorney says he did not have money to pay Haroon, which is why the whole altercation started.
Jackson was released on bail for $750,000 on April 7, 2005 despite the fact that 2,000 cab drivers signed a petition asking the judge to keep him behind bars.
Cab drivers suffer in silence
Some say there are 10,000 cab drivers in Chicago, others say there are 15,000. At least 7,000 are on the road at any given time. And about 60 percent are Muslims from all over the world. I have met cab drivers from North Africa to South Asia in the international city of Chicago. These are hardworking, new immigrants from all over the world.
In the last 10 years, 50 cab drivers have been killed in Chicago. Their murders rarely become front-page news. If they do, considering that they are likely to be a visible minority, a new immigrant or a poor person, their deaths are taken far less seriously. Often times, they are themselves blamed for their own demise.
In Haroon Paryani's case, the defense was made up of topnotch lawyers experienced in smooth talking. Pretty soon, Chicago's media was reporting on the incident as if Paryani was to blame for his own murder.
Gone are the days of Harold Washington, Chicago's first African-American mayor, who ruled between 1983 and 1987. During his reign, when immigration officers started harassing cab drivers, he suggested they leave their offices and drive a cab in the city. That gave at least a 10-year reprieve to drivers from being bothered by police. For these new immigrants who were willing to risk lives, suffer abuse, get beaten up and tolerate harassment by police officers so they could feed their families in America and extended family abroad, this was a relief.
Haroon Paryani was not unaware of these challenges. Not only had he faced them, but only a year ago, his friend Haroon Bawani was also murdered in Chicago.
Cab drivers suffer in silence, primarily because they have no voice. They are fearful because they are new immigrants, including some who are illegal. Since they are not organized into a union that can advocate for their rights and voice their concerns, nobody cares what happens to them.
Cab driving is a profession that, like others, puts great emphasis on pleasing the customer. This is because drivers know a satisfied customer is one who tips and tips well at the end of the ride.
There are literally thousands of satisfied customers. But some who have had one or more negative experiences project them onto all drivers. This leads to dehumanizing talk. Radio talk show hosts spew venom against cab drivers, as do their irate callers, and the city and police minimize their importance and concerns.
The dehumanization just adds to the daily grind of challenges cab drivers face: getting a license for a cab has become more difficult; the tests have become harder; gas prices continue to rise; drivers are often given tickets when they drop off or pick up passengers. Drivers also live in fear of complaints, since one automatically results in a fine. If you're trying to feed your family and help your relatives abroad with your income, you diligently try to avoid incurring any kind of monetary fine.
Most drivers have no health insurance. They have also suffered substantially since the 9/11 terror attacks. Many of them have had the FBI knock on their doors. The Washington Post reports at least 15,000 out of a community of 120,000 have fled from Brooklyn, New York alone (see "An Exodus Grows in Brooklyn: 9/11 Still Rippling Through Pakistani Neighborhood," Washington Post, May 29, 2003; Page A01).
Similarly, due to immigrant flight, business on Chicago's Devon Avenue, the largest South Asian neighborhood in the Midwest, is down by 40 to 50 percent, with dozens of companies shutting down.
These polices and challenges have resulted in more taxis being available than cab drivers willing to drive them. Cab driving has become a hazardous business that requires an extraordinary amount of time, energy, humiliation and abuse in exchange for a paltry salary.
But even with these challenges, America is one place where people have rights. However, they are useless unless you take a stand for them. This is why it's time cab drivers stop tolerating the abuse and proudly stand up for what is their due.
An Honorable Family
It took me about a day to locate Haroon Paryani's family. When I went to see them, I found his widow calm and collected, as well as thoughtful. Two of his sons can speak only with sign language. I didn't know sign language, so we kept talking by writing. I saw how deeply they loved their father, how sad they are. At the same time, they were extremely angry at the media which seemed to blame their father for his own death. But what inspired me was their determination that this should not happen to any more cab drivers.
I prayed for Haroon and his family and we left with the determination that we must stand up for the truth which Allah has taught us: that killing one human being is like killing all of humanity, and saving one life is like saving all of humanity.
What You Can Do?
The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has launched a campaign for cab drivers.
Here are the steps the Council is taking:
Supporting Haroon Paryani's family in their legal struggle
Assisting cab drivers in developing a voice for themselves
Establishing a toll-free number they can call for help
Offering them English-language classes
Offering citizenship classes
Helping cab drivers get health insurance
If you want to work with the Paryani family or help drivers develop a voice for themselves, please volunteer. Please see www.ciogc.org for more information.
While sitting in court at the hearing for Haroon's murder, I kept looking at the alleged murderer, Michael Jackson. I had difficulty believing this person, who is a CPA who works for the city and is an AIDS activist, is capable of killing someone so brutally. I guess we never know when human beings become killers. Alcohol and drugs have a lot to do with people losing themselves.
I will never be able to meet Haroon Paryani to hear his side of the story. Neither will the judge nor the jury in this case. The defense's strategy at this point seems to be to prolong the case as long as they can. The defense was asking for an expedited hearing. However, as soon as bail was given, they withdrew their request.
Meanwhile, witnesses will move on, memories will be lost, public pressure to do something about Paryani's murder and cab driver abuse will diminish, and the shrewd defense attorneys will be able to save their client, despite the brutality of the murder.
It is perhaps indicative of their collective lack of influence that 2,000 cab drivers signed a petition that this dangerous man, alleged murderer Michael Jackson, should not be released. But the document did not find its way to the judge.
So the lesson from Haroon Paryani's death is: don't take your rights for granted. Organize and take a stand. This means not only fighting for rights, but also, successfully making your case to the public through good PR and continued reminders to all that you have not forgotten the injustice.
Muslims in America today remain the last to be hired and the first to be fired. We need to remember them in our prayers. We need to organize ourselves so that America moves forward instead of moving backwards in the civil rights of those subject to dehumanization in our society.
Photo Attribution: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chicago_cab_01_deriv-01.jpg