Reclaiming Public Space for Marginalized Communities: Bikes Don’t Fix Everything, But They Can Help
The recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, and here at home in South L.A. have served to underscore just how hostile the public space can be to people of color, particularly those of lesser means.
For those that live that reality day in and day out in Los Angeles, that is not news.
I’ve documented their frustration with law enforcement officers that would rather harass and arrest than protect and serve in a number of dedicated stories (here, here, here, here). More often, however, concerns about officer misbehavior are interwoven in stories on a wide range of topics simply because they are that much of a constant in the lives of the communities I cover (see here, here, or here).
And while some advocates might question the relevance of such concerns to the Livable Streets movement, I would argue that equal access to streets is a cornerstone of livability. There is no earthly reason that men of color should feel that the act of walking or riding a bicycle down the street is akin to extending an embossed invitation to police to stop, question, and frisk them, hand them bogus tickets (for not having bike lights in the day time, for example), or worse.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the problem.
Among many other things, the abuses of power by the police are facilitated by the de facto segregation of communities by race and/or class, narratives that criminalize members of marginalized communities, the effective disenfranchisement of those communities, and the years of neglect of the health and well-being of those populations.
The entrenched nature of these problems have forced activists to take matters into their own hands in order to chip away at the structures and narratives that have long been used against them.
In South L.A., for example, social justice non-profit Community Coalition worked to put an end to willful defiance suspensions in schools, just finished its third Freedom School summer program, and will host the third annual South L.A. Powerfest this Sept. 6th. In Boyle Heights, the non-profit visual arts center Self-Help Graphics has cultivated Latino and Chicano consciousness and creativity through its programming for 40 years, and just completed a summer session aimed at empowering youth to express their visions for their communities through art.
Other activists have taken to the streets.
This weekend, I had the privilege of riding with two sets of groups whose brand of activism involves using bikes to reclaim public space for marginalized communities.
On Saturday, the Ovarian Psyco-Cycles (above) — a “womyn of color bicycle brigade, cycling for the purpose of healing our communities, physically, emotionally, and spiritually” — took over one hundred riders on a ten-hour odyssey around Los Angeles in the quest to carve out a safe space for women and those who identify as women.
On Sunday, members of groups from Central and South L.A that work to empower their communities (below), including Los Ryderz, the East Side Riders, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, TRUST South L.A., Community Health Councils, the Southeast Bicycle Alliance, and the Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance, came together to promote health and unity on a ride from Little Tokyo to Watts and back.
While bikes might not seem like the most effective way to tackle social justice, rides through Boyle Heights or South L.A. with these groups are never solely about riding bikes.
Because activists from these communities do not take unfettered mobility for granted, the rides offer an opportunity to discuss injustices, raise concerns about environmental issues, set an example for collaboration across racial boundaries, promote health, explore neighborhoods where public space is contested and recreational riding is practically non-existent, celebrate their own communities as destinations, and inspire greater civic engagement. And for groups which are heavily youth-centric, like Los Ryderz, the rides and related club activities are key to motivating at-risk youth to stay in school, building their self-esteem, giving them a surrogate family/positive group to belong to, and helping them see there is an entire world beyond their neighborhood.
To those ends, the organizers of the Ovas’ ride made time for a discussion of gentrification and the damage done by gang injunctions in Echo Park and fighting environmental racism at Communities for a Better Environment in Huntington Park. Similarly, the Unity riders explored Japanese and African-American history, stopping at the Dunbar Hotel, the African-American Fire Fighter Museum, the Civil Rights Museum at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, and the Nisei Week closing celebrations in Little Tokyo.
Watching such diverse groups come together, share ideas and experiences, and receive such a positive response from the communities they passed through made for an exhilarating weekend.
And while these kinds of events are in no way a direct fix for either the kinds of injustices that resulted in the deaths of two young men of color or the other long-standing challenges that plague some of the more marginalized areas, they do have a role to play. When done conscientiously, they can empower participants to see that more active engagement in the public space can help rewrite the narratives about their communities. And if done regularly, they might even inspire observers in these communities to believe that they, too, will one day feel more at home in the public space.
For more on the groups, visit the FB pages for the Ovarian Psyco-Cycles, Los Ryderz, the East Side Riders, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, TRUST South L.A., Community Health Councils, the Southeast Bicycle Alliance, and the Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance.
Photos from this Saturday’s 3rd Annual Clitoral Mass with the Ovarian Psyco-Cycles are below.