Richard Chow, Augustine Tang, and Basia Osowki may not end up being remembered alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, or Bobby Sands, all of whom famously undertook hunger strikes to protest injury and injustice. But maybe they should be—along with the dozen or so other New York City taxi drivers who, after years of fruitless pleading for relief from crushing debt, decided they had no choice but to starve themselves to draw attention to their plight. They were acting on behalf of thousands of others in the same straits, drivers unable to pay off the cost of the medallion required to own and operate a yellow cab in New York.
For many decades, medallions were marketed as sound investments, especially to immigrants. But in the mid-2000s, the market for medallions, like the real-estate market, became a bubble, with values rising many times over by the mid-2010s. And just like unsuspecting homebuyers, drivers were pressured by predatory lenders to take out ever bigger loans to cover the spiraling cost of purchase or to refinance, assured that the value of medallions would only continue to climb. The city, under Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, enthusiastically encouraged this practice, because medallion sales translate into tax revenue. (Indeed, the city sets the opening bid rate on medallions, which at one point hit $1 million.) But then came Uber and Lyft, which flooded city streets with tens of thousands of unregulated cars, and medallion values plummeted. Next came the pandemic: as the city shut down and riders disappeared, values dropped still more. Many yellow-cab drivers were suddenly facing ruin, owing as much as $600,000 on a medallion worth just a fraction of that amount, with no way to make payments that typically exceeded their monthly income. At least nine despairing drivers killed themselves. One was Richard Chow’s brother, Yu Mein, who abandoned his cab outside the mayor’s residence and jumped into the nearby East River.