“Wow… is all I can say,” wrote Veronica Davis, avid cyclist and member of Black Women Bike: D.C. under a photo on a facebook page entitled, “Black People with Bikes that Aren’t Theirs,” that insinuated she was riding a stolen bike.
“The ignorance of this page is astounding,” she continued. “Especially since this is a photo of me on a bike I didn’t steal.”
It’s true, the ignorance of the page was astounding (even featuring stock photos of black children on bikes and labeling them as thieves) as was its growing number of “likes” (3280 and counting since I first saw the page this morning).
I was tempted to brush it off as one of the many, many, many outrageously stupid, racist, ignorant things you can find on the interwebs with great ease. But it was tapping into something that seems to be up for national debate right now — the right of people of color to move through the public space free of suspicion — and using the photos of known African-American cyclists and livable streets advocates to make a case against their right to do so.
And while the owner of the page claimed it was harmless, stating, “This page started off as shits n gigs [sic] but for some reason people cant [sic] accept that. Im [sic] not purposely trying to be racist. All im [sic] trying to do is make people laugh,” it really isn’t.
The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford (killed in Walmart while carrying a toy gun sold by the store), 12-year-old Tamir Rice (killed for brandishing a toy gun and not given first aid because officers were busy tackling and handcuffing his 14-year-old sister when she tried to come to his aid), Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, 34 (gunned down in Gardena by the very police he and his brother had called for help while looking for their stolen bike), and many others all offer powerful illustrations of how easily biases about the intentions of people of color can upend their fates.
And while these issues have finally become big news of late, it is not news to folks of color that they are often viewed with suspicion in the public space, particularly by law enforcement. Walking-while-black (or brown) offers its own unique set of challenges. But so does riding bikes.
In fact, men and male youth of color I’ve spoken with report that a bike is the perfect excuse for officers to regularly stop and question them about their activities or why they are in a particular neighborhood. Even beloved East Side Riders president Frederick Buggs, Sr., has spoken of the numerous occasions when he’s been harassed for no reason. In one of his more recent encounters, he told me, officers drove alongside him as he rode home one night, telling him that having a white, blinking light on the front of his bike was illegal. Buggs, a long-time cyclist, bike enthusiast, and builder of bikes, knew better and replied calmly that his light was the same brand and make that the LAPD had on their own bikes. After more back and forth with Buggs about possible other problems with the bike or what he was doing out riding at that hour, the officers were unable to find an excuse to pull him over and finally left him alone.
The endings are not always so happy.
Stops are often humiliating and insulting, as in the case of some Boston teens who testified they were told, “People in your hood ride bikes to shoot people” (emphasis theirs) and “We had to stop you. You look suspicious.” In Fort Lauderdale, a female African-American commuter-cyclist had her bike confiscated by officers who claimed it was probably stolen, as she hadn’t registered it. Richmond Spokes staff members were harassed in front of well-known advocate Brian Drayton’s home, and told that the turkey bone found in a staff member’s pocket was drug paraphernalia because, according Drayton’s summary of the supervising officer’s remarks, “80% of the cyclist [sic] in Richmond at night are involved in drug, robbery, and violent offenses and [officers] where [sic] just keeping the community safe by profiling cyclist [sic], and liberal hippies in the iron triangle.”
Here in L.A., just last October, 22-year-old Clinton Alford was tackled, viciously kicked in the head, and then arrested for resisting arrest. Officers had been on the lookout for a robbery suspect, seen him riding on the sidewalk at Avalon and 55th, and apparently decided he was potentially riding away from the scene of a crime. He was not.
The list of egregious and painful incidences that originate with the expectation that people of color are potential criminals is long, in other words. So, it is even more disheartening to see those ugly biases manifest on social media in the form of a Facebook page with thousands of followers and to see Facebook refuse (at first, at least) to take the reports I and other advocates made about the content of the page seriously.
Soon after receiving notification that Facebook was going to look at the page to assess the content, I received this standard reply:
Thank you for taking the time to report something that you feel may violate our Community Standards. Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment. We reviewed the Page you reported for harassment and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.Note: If you have an issue with something on the page, be sure to report the content (ex: a photo), not the entire page. That way, your report will be more accurately reviewed.
If only one of the riders had been breastfeeding, I thought, FB might have taken the reports more seriously.
After a flood of reports from outraged advocates and cyclists, however, it appears that Facebook finally did take the concerns seriously and the page owner grumbled that they would be shut down in the next five minutes. The page, with its photos removed, still stands and will be deleted over the next 14 days, according to Facebook.
Score one for the advocates, for now. If only eradicating actual biases held by actual people were this easy.
UPDATE, Jan. 15: The offending page has been completely removed by Facebook. I’m just sorry I didn’t get any screenshots of it for illustration purposes.