December 16, 2017

Muslim taxi driver shot on Thanksgiving

Pittsburgh police are investigating the Thanksgiving Day shooting of a Muslim cab driver in Hazelwood that the victim and leaders of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh are describing as a hate crime.

The driver, a 38-year-old Moroccan immigrant who has requested anonymity out of fear for his safety and who has not been identified by police, said he picked a man up outside Rivers Casino at about 1 a.m. Thursday. During the trip to a residence on Second Avenue in Hazelwood, the driver said, the passenger began asking him about his background.

“He started the conversation and began to ask questions like, ‘You seem to be like a Pakistani guy. Are you from Pakistan?’ ” the driver said in an interview from his bed at UPMC Mercy, where he is being treated for a bullet wound in the upper back. “And I said, ‘No, I’m from Morocco. But I’m an American guy.’

“Then he continued the conversation. He began to speak about ISIS killing people. I told him ‘Actually, I’m against ISIS. I don’t like them.’ I even told him that they are killing innocent people. I noticed that he changed his tone and he began to satirize Muhammad, my prophet, and began to shift to his personal life. He mentioned that he has two kids and was in prison for some time.

“So it was this kind of stuff until we got to his destination. He asked me to wait for a little bit because he forgot his wallet in the house. I waited for just five minutes, I think, and I noticed that he came out of the house carrying a rifle in his hand. I noticed him coming toward me. I didn’t hesitate. I [made] a fast decision to leave and drove my taxi away because I felt he was going to do something. There is danger. He would shoot me or something. I felt like he had the intention to kill me.”

The driver said that as he sped away he heard a couple of gunshots, one of which blasted out the back window of his cab and struck him. The incident occurred between Flowers Avenue and Tecumseh Street, and he was able to drive a couple of blocks further to Mansion Street, he said, where he had to pull over. He then waved down a passing car and got someone to call the police.

He remains in UPMC Mercy in stable condition, the bullet still lodged in his back between his shoulder blades. He spoke with a detective at about 8 a.m. Thursday in the hospital.

Pittsburgh police released a statement with some details of the shooting but they have not determined whether the incident was motivated by the driver’s race or religion.

City Councilman Corey O’Connor, who represents the district where the shooting occurred, on Saturday said the investigation is continuing.

“Detectives are talking to a couple witnesses and they’re starting to gather information to put a timeline together,” he said. “There are all kinds of details that have to be looked into. They have to look at the evidence and any videos that may exist.”

The FBI is aware of the shooting, and is evaluating the incident, said Greg Heeb, spokesman for the bureau’s Pittsburgh branch.

“All I can really say is that we evaluate all crimes that appear to be racially motivated,” he said.

Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, expressed frustration and impatience with the investigation.

“Very simply, this is a hate crime and it must be treated as such,” Mr. Mohamed said. “It is heartbreaking to see a horrible crime such as this committed in Pittsburgh, a city that on the surface is making attempts to be more welcoming.”

Mr. Mohamed said he has heard of a rising number of incidents targeting Muslims in Pittsburgh, and the center has received a couple of telephone threats, one of which prompted him to file a police report.

A Muslim woman among a group of friends with the wounded driver in his hospital room said the entire community is on edge.

“Since the Paris attack, we’ve been suffering,” said the woman, a member of the Islamic Center and who also requested anonymity. “Personally, we experience a lot of humiliation, a lot of people giving you the finger on the streets and calling you names. But when it comes to the point of shooting, this is extreme. This has to stop.”

“I believe the city has an opportunity and a responsibility to demonstrate that it is welcoming and will not stand for this kind of violence,” Mr. Mohamed said. “Our community will be praying for the recovery of our brother and expecting that the authorities take this matter much more seriously in the coming days.”

“The police hope to be able to arrest whoever committed this heinous crime,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Our officers and our detectives do a very good job, and we feel pretty confident that whoever did this will be apprehended. Obviously, we want results as soon as possible, but sometimes when the evidence is not there and we don’t have the proper witnesses, it makes the job [take] a little bit longer than an immediate response, but we will respond, and I think that’s a credit to our police force.

“It’s not like a TV show where it’s solved in 15 minutes. We have to go back, retrace everybody’s steps, look at videos.”

The driver said he has been driving a cab with Cranberry Taxi Service for a month and the vehicle was equipped with a video recorder. Police did not say if they have reviewed any video and a spokesperson for Cranberry Taxi Service could not be reached.

Before becoming a cab driver, the victim said, he worked in a market. He arrived in Pittsburgh from Morocco five years ago with a bachelor’s degree in English. He said he hopes to become a teacher and plans to bring his wife to this country and raise a family. He is three months away from becoming an American citizen — but he already considers this to be his country and Pittsburgh his city.

“This [incident] is due to the person, not the city,” he said. “Pittsburgh is my style, it is like my hometown [of Safi] in Morocco. My dream is to be an American.

“This is a unique nation. Here in America I have achieved what I could not in Morocco. Here I learned how to drive. Here I easily get a job with health benefits. All aspects of life. Cleanliness. This is my country. I am proud to say I am American, but I didn’t have the chance to say that to him.”

As far as the shooter is concerned, the driver said he simply wants justice done.

“In our religion, Islam, we forgive, even in such conditions,” he said. “I learned this from our prophet Muhammad. We don’t take revenge. I could forgive this, but I still want my rights.”

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