Are You Supposed to be Here?: Officer Harasses Black Cyclists during MLK Day Parade

Members of the Black Kids on Bikes and their supporters gather for a photo during the MLK Day Parade along King Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Members of the Black Kids on Bikes and their supporters gather for a photo during the MLK Day Parade along King Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“Are you supposed to be in the parade?”

Arms outstretched to halt the glacially-paced forward movement of the group, the LAPD officer stepped in front of long-time South L.A. Real Ryda and one of the area’s best-known cycling elders, William Holloway.

Stunned, we all looked at each other.

Is this man serious?

The Real Rydaz and some of the other low-rider clubs they teamed up with for South L.A.’s King Day parade yesterday specialize in parades. The great energy they bring by performing tricks with their intricately detailed bikes makes them crowd favorites around the city, but especially along King Blvd., where they have a long history with the community. It’s not unusual to hear people chant “Real Rydaz!” from the sidelines as they see the bikes approaching. Or to hear the entire crowd break into song, as they did yesterday, when Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday!” (written to celebrate Dr. King) blared from one of the Rydaz’ speakers.

“Sir, they ride in the parade every year,” I interjected. “Everybody knows them.”

Henry, Helen Myers, a Lady Rider, Shuntain Thomas, and others wait patiently for the parade to move forward. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Henry III, Helen Myers, a Lady Rider, Shuntain Thomas, and others wait patiently for the parade to move forward. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Holloway then began to speak up, as did some of the others, asking what the problem was and declaring that they had been participants in the parade for years.

Now a little less sure of himself, the officer kept looking back and forth between me (the non-African-American) and the Rydaz, as if he wasn’t sure he could take their word for it and I might be the one to provide the real story of what was going on.

He then back-pedaled a bit, saying that they had had a problem with helmetless kids crashing the parade with another bike group up ahead (more on that below) and people trying to get photos, and everything being a mess. Then, he pointed to a youth on a three-wheeled bike (below) and demanded to know where his helmet was, saying it was illegal for kids under the age of 18 to be without helmets.

William Holloway, South L.A. Real Rydaz royalty, and the young man without a helmet ride up King Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
William Holloway, South L.A. Real Rydaz royalty, and the young man without a helmet on a three-wheeled bike ride up King Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“It’s a parade!” I and others exclaimed.

And possibly one of the slowest-moving parades in the history of man, at that — it took nearly four hours to travel the 2.6 miles between Vermont Ave. and Crenshaw Blvd.

The safety argument made no sense, in other words. The LAPD — who were out in much higher numbers than I recall seeing at past events yesterday — were certainly not telling the numerous dignitaries sitting on the back seats of their convertibles to sit properly and put their seat belts on or the members of the many groups riding in flatbed trucks that they shouldn’t be standing up like that.

But they did seem to see bicyclists as a problem and were disinclined to believe they had a right to be there.

The paper indicating the group's position in the parade. All groups were given similar placeholders. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Swift
An example of the paper indicating a group’s position in the parade. All groups were given similar placeholders. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Swift

Even when shown the hand-written paper indicating the Rydaz’ position in the parade (the same hand-written paper given to all participants who had paid entry fees), the officer dismissed it with a wave of his hand, saying “Anybody could have written that.”

“Are you serious?” we asked, simultaneously incredulous and indignant.

The officer finally backed down and let the group continue, mumbling something about safety and that he had just had to check to be sure everything was above board.

“You just got profiled in your own parade!” I said to Holloway.

Having recently written about how people of color riding bicycles are often viewed with suspicion, I should not have been surprised. But I was. I did not expect that, during the very festivities dedicated to the legacy of the man who had championed equality and dignity for people of color, a few officers would find a way to remind folks that they were still seen as less than.

And the Real Rydaz weren’t the only ones.

The owner of Bill’s Bike Shop — a long-standing community asset on Jefferson Ave. — was harassed by an officer as he tried to catch up with the Black Kids on Bikes (BKoB) after he and I patched up his flat tire together.

And BKoB, a group that has been a fixture in the parade for five years now, was treated even more poorly than the Real Rydaz.

Andrae Harrison and others ride along MLK Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Andrae Harrison and others from BKoB ride along MLK Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The officer took co-founder Jeremy Swift and others to task for allowing neighborhood kids without helmets to “crash” the float. Then, he questioned the authenticity of Swift’s paper indicating their position in the parade and even tried to call over parade organizers to verify he was getting the real story from the cyclists.

Where the officer had given up rather quickly with the Real Rydaz, the questioning of BKoB dragged on for some time. Finally, Swift found himself having to take aside four youth, talk to them about the importance of helmets, both for safety (Swift himself is a strong advocate of helmet use) and as a way to avoid being hassled by law enforcement in the street in the future, and, then, ask them to leave.

IMGP4575
Three of the four kids that an LAPD officer claimed were supposedly causing problems during the parade and making everything a mess. In contrast, I found these kids to be incredibly sweet, experienced and knowledgeable about cycling and bike maintenance for their age, and super-excited to be able to be in the street with older riders they admired. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

It was an unhappy moment and the antithesis of what BKoB’s participation in the parade was about.

Their approach to doing a “float” is non-traditional, in that they tend to have their group members ride slowly in circles while some of the riders do tricks on their bikes in the middle.

A rider pops a wheelie as the others ride in a circle. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A rider pops a wheelie as the others ride in a circle. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Their appearance is highly anticipated by a lot of the younger kids along the route who have grown up watching the group in the parade. Many can’t wait to grab their own bikes and take advantage of the rare opportunity to ride safely on an otherwise incredibly busy and unsafe street.

A rider performs a track stand while others loop around and head back down the boulevard. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A rider performs a track stand (at left) while others loop around and head back down the boulevard. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

That interactive quality of their “float” is very much in line with what Swift and the others had hoped for.

When I first rode in the parade with BKoB two years ago, Swift was clear that his goals were to let people know they were a resource in the community, to promote positive images of African-American cyclists, and to spread messages of family, fun, community, and health.

One of Jeremy Swift's sons rides confidently with the group. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
One of Jeremy Swift’s sons rides confidently with the group. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A dedicated parent himself, it was not unusual to see Swift (with his two boys in tow) stopping along the route to speak to young kids about the importance of listening to their parents and doing well in school. Other riders helped kids (and sometimes curious adults) test out their bikes and invited parade-watchers to join in their monthly rides.

This time around was not much different. Both before and during the parade, all I heard were positive comments about what a great example BKoB was setting for the community. A young man, inspired by seeing youth of color on bikes, spoke of his own work with troubled kids returning from juvenile hall. Women near the intersection of Leimert Park Blvd. mused about getting their own bikes and starting to ride. Young girls, impressed by rider Taryn Randle and her fixie, called out shyly, “I like your bike!” and declared to each other that they would one day ride bikes like hers.

Riders edge toward Crenshaw Blvd. as the sunlight begins to fade. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Riders edge toward Crenshaw Blvd. as the sunlight begins to fade. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Two of the kids that had been asked to leave eventually made their way back to the group, just hoping to sneak back in for the last half mile. They had been surprised by the officer’s behavior, they told me, but were happy to be welcomed back by BKoB.

They definitely seemed excited to be there.

Even though the parade was essentially at a stand-still for the last stretch before Crenshaw, they happily rode in circles around me, telling me stories, peppering me with questions, and asking how they could find any photos of themselves I might have taken.

They were proud to participate in the parade and it meant a lot to them to see themselves reflected in the group of BKoB riders.

They were also exactly what the day was supposed to be about: youth believing they have the right to decide the streets belong to them, regardless of what less-enlightened individuals have to say.

19 thoughts on Are You Supposed to be Here?: Officer Harasses Black Cyclists during MLK Day Parade

  1. I hope you or someone files a formal complaint to LAPD to get it documented and into the officer’s file. Even if they end up hand-waving it away it gets captured into the statistics.

  2. after all the complaining I do about these sorts of things, you’d think I’d remember to get badge numbers, etc. But in the moment that these things are going down, it goes out of your head (or my head, at least)…But yes, the plan is to report it, at least to parade organizers.

  3. I think you should try to get it out to mainstream news outlets too. Have you thought about trying to turn it into an op-ed for the LA Times?

  4. Why weren’t any of the people standing around on the sidewalk wearing helmets? Don’t they know how dangerous LA’s broken sidewalks are?

  5. Thank you for covering this. I am dismayed. Reading this, I always have to reckon with my own privilege (I am not a young black male, but rather a thirty-something Asian American female). I’m really sorry to hear this happened to you and to the participants who were harassed. This may sound menial, but I will ask anyway: What can we do to help (in this instance)? (The answers to the bigger question are far broader reaching).

  6. This is an issue of cultural change within the LAPD. They have to be disabused of the idea that black folk on bikes are gangsters, criminals, drunks, etc. That’s part of the reason BKoB rides the parade — to change negative stereotypes that both the LAPD and some community members hold. But part of it also highlights the need for community policing — the officers need to be familiar with who is in the community, what it is about, and have relationships with folks there. There was a glut of officers on hyper-alert at the parade because of the recent protests (and a number of protest groups that participated in the parade), and it was almost like they were looking for an excuse to exercise some of their authority. The idea that some would be brazen enough to do so, in the middle of a civil rights-inspired parade, in front of an entire community of African-Americans says a lot about what is possible when no witnesses are around to watch over how officers behave. Community-based policing, where officers get to know people and the barriers that allow fear to fester and harm trust-building, is really key to changing this dynamic.

  7. Thanks Sahra for documenting this encounter. There was so much irony in the air all day (the “White VIP” section that didn’t exist, the officer confronting parade participants DURING the parade in honor of the Non-Violent Dr. King, the fact our “float” was asked to ride behind the sports car club constantly revving their engines filling the air with fumes choking us riders as well as the parade watchers), but even all that could not derail our goals of having a great day on the bikes while encouraging others with the pure joy on our faces. We are the streets. We are the people who are supposed to be protected and served, instead we got inspected and served. We didn’t get the cop’s badge number because the day wasn’t in his honor (he would probably be commended instead of disciplined anyway). We were there to honor Dr. King and the ideas he stood for. In the end, we achieved that, and furthered the groups connection with like minded people in the neighborhood. With adversity comes the option to wilt or grow stronger, we choose the latter. I am proud of how our group responded to the interaction. Power to the Pedal!

  8. It doesn’t matter if you feel he would be commended, or if you didn’t get the badge number. As long as you have a time and location lodge a complaint in the system. Make it be investigated, and make it count in the statistics. They may rule that there is insufficient evidence to take action, but at least command staff will know that this occurred. Also copy the complaint to the Mayor and City Councilperson in the area. It is impossible for the powers to be to lift a finger if they are unaware what is going on.

  9. Helmet laws are only there as a pretense for police to stop people, they don’t serve any useful purpose.

  10. Until you crash. For the focus of the article they were used by the officer as a reason to profile. That LEO lacked basic common sense.

  11. I don’t disagree that wearing a helmet is a good idea, I nearly always do. However helmet laws don’t increase the number of people riding with helmets, they just decrease ridership by people who don’t want to wear helmets while at the same time giving cops a pretense to harass people.

  12. LAPD Southwest Captain Snell presides over the station’s C-PAB (Community Police Advisory Board) meetings every 2nd Tuesday @ the Child Guidance Center on Vermont / 6:30pm. I don’t know if the police along the route were all from Southwest. I’ve
    been told that Captain Snell directs his officers to be more
    understanding. It might be a good place to lodge personal complaints or to start a dialogue about cycling harrassment.

    On a side note: Representative Karen Bass will be hosting a Town Hall on Saturday about Community Policing. Eventbrite RSVPs are here: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/21st-century-policing-a-forum-on-president-obamas-new-taskforce-tickets-15101086757

  13. LAPD Southwest Captain Snell presides over the station’s C-PAB (Community Police Advisory Board) meetings every 2nd Tuesday @ the Child Guidance Center on Vermont / 6:30pm. I don’t know if the police along the route were all from Southwest. I’ve
    been told that Captain Snell directs his officers to be more
    understanding. It might be a good place to lodge personal complaints or to start a dialogue about cycling harassment.

    On a side note: Representative Karen Bass will be hosting a Town Hall on Saturday about Community Policing. Eventbrite RSVPs are here: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/21st-century-policing-a-forum-on-president-obamas-new-taskforce-tickets-15101086757

  14. Thanks, Yvonne. And yes, I am a fan of Capt. Snell. I just wish the folks under him were as great. But I don’t know where the officer was from, division-wise. I did pass it on to Johnny Raines, who is a liaison with the LAPD. And I appreciate the link to Karen Bass’ event. Although I do wish that folks would finally just get serious and actually do community policing instead of continuing to talk about whether or not it is needed!

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