Ever since Uber became an illegal transportation service in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, local police and angry taxi drivers have been hunting down users of the ride-sharing app. The owner of a local taxi company even announced plans to hand over a list of 50 license plates belonging to vehicles of Uber drivers.
On September 17, Portsmouth City Hall passed a transportation ordinance that eliminated the Taxi Commission and medallions for taxi drivers, and instead requires that all taxi and Uber drivers provide proof of commercial insurance and a police background check.
Uber has refused to comply with the ordinance, meaning their drivers face fines of up to US$500 for their first offense and US$1,000 for subsequent violations.
So far, the city has targeted a 63-year-old grandmother for being an unlicensed Uber driver. On October 17, the police threw her two female customers out onto the street and issued her a citation.
Part-time Uber driver Christopher David also recently spent some time in jail, and faces a potential three to seven-year prison sentence. Police arrested David on a felony wiretapping charge, claiming that he illegally recorded audio of downtown-bar bouncer without his permission.
“My reaction, of course, was to burst out laughing.,” David wrote on Facebook. “The lawyer said I probably shouldn’t be laughing about it, [but] how could I not? The men who lied us into war and killed over 1,000,000 innocent Iraqis got zero prison time. But yeah, lock me away for a YouTube video. Sure.”
The PanAm Post spoke with David about Portsmouth’a battle with Uber, and the development of the “Free Uber” campaign, which he founded to try and make the ride-sharing app legal once again in his city.
Is Uber currently illegal in Portsmouth?
Yes. Uber has been illegal for about six weeks. I have heard that Uber has been talking with the City Council, trying to get them to change the laws in a certain way that would let them continue to operate.
We are trying to overturn the law anyway, even if Uber makes it through the process. There are still other ride-sharing companies, and to have them go through the same thing doesn’t make any sense.
We want them to stop claiming jurisdiction over some drivers and customers who want to find each other and connect. This should not be something that the local government is putting up obstacles against to force people to do things their way or not do it at all.
Why is it illegal?
There are two main sticking points: one is the background checks, and the other one is the commercial insurance.
The ordinance was written to have the background-check process through the local police department, but Uber has their own background-check process. I had to go through a state and federal background check, as well as a driving background check, before I got approved to join Uber.
Uber has this process well documented, and every driver has to go through it. The big issue with the city is that they want to be able to sign off on that. If we have that process run by the police through the police department, then there is a way for people to request records for local government, and it potentially puts at risk the company’s most sensitive private information: the identity of its drivers.
Asking Uber to potentially disclose identities of its drivers in order to operate in Portsmouth is the equivalent of asking Coca-Cola to disclose the recipe of Coke before being sold.
Uber has repeatedly said that it cannot do that.
Have you had the chance to talk to the taxi drivers and find a peaceful resolution?
Earlier this year, I went to a couple of the City Council meetings, and I actually had some nice conversations with owners of taxi companies. But it became clear that they were not going to change their core demand of passing these regulations that Uber has said that it cannot comply with.
I think a number of the taxi drivers and owners see this as a way to keep Uber out, not explicitly, but effectively.
I started this Free Uber campaign as a direct response to seeing the first article about cabbies vowing to police the streets for us. We needed to organize the Uber drivers and get our message out.
And I think we are: we put up over 1,000 flyers around downtown Portsmouth. We had an overwhelmingly positive response from people. Everyone is incredulous that the city would make Uber illegal.
In the last few weeks, the police have started to enforce this, and the first person to get cited was a grandmother driver.
This grandmother was pulled over not by one but by two police cars, one of which was a K9 unit. We drove by to try to check on the scene, and I was at least happy to see that she had a smile on her face with the two police cars behind her.
What are you trying to achieve with the Uber rally on November 16?
We want as many people as possible to come to the next Council meeting at City Hall. They haven’t posted the agenda yet, but they do have a public comment section at every meeting so people can stand up and say what they want to say.
The goal is to persuade the Council to schedule a vote on stopping enforcement of this ordinance, at least in the short term.
The point is to push it towards deregulation, taking the [government’s] hands off the situation entirely, and getting back to how it was before they passed this ordinance — when Uber was operating for six months without a single incident.
We are also advocating that the city deregulate transportation services. We don’t want taxis to be regulated either. We want the market to decide.
We trust that the people of Portsmouth can use their judgment and their discretion to choose which services they trust to take them from point A to point B. We believe that they can make up their own minds.
NB: video contains strong language.