Equity 101: Bikes v. Bodies on Bikes

Ceebo Tha Rapper shoots a video near 65th and Broadway, where 25-year-old Ezell Ford was shot and killed by the police, answering critics that thought his first video called for violence against the police. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Ceebo Tha Rapper (at right) shoots a rap video near 65th and Broadway, where 25-year-old Ezell Ford was shot and killed by the police. The video was to answer critics that thought his first video called for violence against the police. Ceebo (DaMonte Shipp) was arrested later that summer on a burglary charged and sentenced to 17 years.  Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“Maybe you didn’t catch that you jumped into a convo specifically about transportation/police issues?” the self-described “police/community relations specialist” and bike advocate tweeted at me.

“You’ve been whitesplained!” announced the cheery AOL-style voice in my head.

It’s the voice I hear every time I am told by a white person that race and class have no bearing on a conversation. Which happens way more often than you probably think, by the way.

But to answer her query, I was very much aware that I had jumped into the #moveequity conversation to engage the prompt, “How can community groups and residents partner with law enforcement to build trust and create safer, fairer communities?”

I did so specifically because the thread, part of a national Twitter chat hosted by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership last week, was quickly racking up semi-vague statements about the importance of building relationships.

The vagueness, to be fair, was partially due to the fact that the medium was Twitter, and you can only go so deep in 140 characters. Also to be fair, none of the suggestions offered up were necessarily wrong. Stronger relationships between law enforcement and the communities they police must absolutely be forged if the country is to heal and move toward a more just state.

But in a week when we had all watched yet two more Black men die in a hail of bullets on our screens, the absence of depth, urgency, and specifics in the conversation felt jarring.

So, when I spotted the tweet arguing the best way forward was to “Develop trust and engagement via long-term relationships based on mutual respect. Can’t just make demands,” I decided to ask the most logical and pressing question: How do we do that?

In communities where there has never been any sort of trust, where the relationship is so toxic and so suppressive that residents speak of law enforcement as the equivalent of an occupying force monitoring any and all movement through the public space, and where young men join gangs because they feel so vulnerable and unprotected in the streets, how do you begin to undo that harm?

We had to go beyond bike corral projects and barbecues with officers and collaborate with city agencies to transform the culture of policing from the top down, I argued. Preventive police work and meaningful community engagement had to be valued over the number of drug or gun busts. And any and all work had to be grounded in the understanding that the deep distrust stemmed from the suspicion and brutality with which African American and Latino people were regularly treated in the public space, not the fact that they were on bikes when they were mistreated.

“Please go troll someone else,” came the reply. “I work every day to make my city better for Everyone. Peace out.”

Bikes v. Bodies
That I would essentially be #AllLivesMatter-ed and subsequently blocked by a bike advocate in a conversation specifically dedicated to transportation and policing was somewhat strange, but not surprising.

There exists a pretty significant chasm within the mobility advocacy community when it comes to issues of equity and justice. At the heart of it lies the question of where one anchors the frameworks that guide their thinking: on the bicycle or on the body moving through space on those two wheels.

Those more aligned with mainstream thinking on mobility tend to begin their analyses from the perspective of the bicycle and the ability of the cyclist to navigate said bike along streets safely and without physical impediments.

When the bicycle is the starting point, it is likely to be seen as a vehicle for inclusion and transformation – a means to bring health, joy, a reduction in stress, connection, community, and even opportunity into one’s personal life and the life of the neighborhoods one pedals through. As such, bikes and bike infrastructure can be seen as the solution to any number of a city’s ills. High obesity rates? It must be the lack of biking and walking infrastructure in lower-income communities. Crime or blight in public spaces? Improvements to infrastructure will mean more eyes on the street. Need an economic boost? Bikes mean business. People are poor and their housing is unaffordable? Parking requirements are overburdening the poor, cars are draining their budgets – they should probably have bikes, bike lanes, and bike-share instead.

Because the bicycle is considered a great equalizer, access tends to be assumed. Questions about barriers to cycling are generally focused on infrastructure, other vehicles on the road, the way that laws regulate the movement of that bicycle through space, the biases inherent in those laws or the enforcement of those laws against pedal-powered vehicles, the privileges enjoyed by cars, and the normalization of bicycling as a form of transportation.

When challenged to think about the body moving through space on that bicycle – the starting point for most folks who work on transportation and mobility through a justice lens – the limitations of a bike-centric approach quickly become apparent. As does the divide between advocacy camps.

That divide was apparent in my tweet chat with the police/community relations specialist. She believed a bike corral built with the help of their local law enforcement agency would help “increas[e] police understanding of people on bikes (many of whom are black/brown) as people worthy of respect.”

It’s a claim that, again, makes sense when using a bike-centered analysis. Bikes are indeed given less respect than cars as a general rule, and nationwide, law enforcement is notorious for actively impeding bicycles by parking in bike lanes, citing cyclists improperly, and assuming bikes are at fault when collisions occur. And addressing those issues is genuinely important.

If we look at the issue through the lens of the body, however, we tend to begin with questions about the extent to which that individual or group can freely access the public space in the first place.

At that point, an entirely different landscape opens up and it becomes immediately clear that these aren’t the only issues people of color face while biking.

Here in Los Angeles, for instance, the bicycle is yet one more excuse to stop of a person of color, particularly if they are lower-income, and perform an illegal search or harass them about their destination, their parole or probation status, their job status, what business they have being in the neighborhood, who owns the bike they are riding, or previous arrests.

The presence of a bicycle also makes it easier for an officer to write a bogus citation for some fault with the bike (no lights during the daytime, for example) or the cyclist’s handling of the bike that helps justify the harassment and makes it less likely that the recipient will lodge a complaint.

Should one of these citations go unpaid – as many people I’ve interviewed tell me they often do – that ticket turns into a warrant. Which means that the next time that person is stopped, they risk arrest or receiving yet another citation which increases the likelihood that they will end up in jail at some point down the line.

In short, the bike facilitates harassment and the escalation of the stakes for people of color by making them easy pickings. Since it is rarely the motivation for the stop in and of itself, however, getting a police department to respect bicyclists as a whole still doesn’t guarantee that they will respect the actual individuals on those bikes. Until we address the suspicion, fear, disrespect, and overt violence with which law enforcement regularly treats people of color, regardless of their mode of transit, the ability of those folks to safely ride bikes will continue to be limited.

But why stop the analysis there?

Now that we’ve centered the focus on the body, we might as well continue asking questions about the contexts that individual or group inhabits and passes through. Because suppressive policing hasn’t happened in a vacuum.

Historically in L.A., law enforcement was deployed to enforce segregation and police the movement of the Black and brown populations crowded into neighborhoods decimated by red-lining and other discriminatory policies, disenfranchisement, denial of opportunity, and disinvestment. More recently, police have played an indirect role in facilitating gentrification by responding to calls to “protect” wealthier newcomers from “suspicious-looking” lower-income residents of color and monitoring public spaces (and the movement of residents) more closely in gentrifying areas.

Which means new amenities like bike lanes and bike corrals can cause some consternation in lower-income communities of color.

Having been denied infrastructure in the past and now presented with “improvements” that don’t address or even acknowledge long-standing demands for better infrastructure and community investments, the first question people may ask is, “Who is this really for?”

And because the two biggest barriers to accessing the public space in some of these neighborhoods are law enforcement and gangs, a new amenity can seem even more out of place. Particularly if wealthier, whiter newcomers can use it easily, but youth of color still struggle with basic access to the street.

Which may mean that a collaboration on a project like a bike corral, as suggested by the police/community relations specialist, could inadvertently alienate more people of color than it helped, depending on how the project was handled, who was involved, who benefited, and where it was deployed.

Where You Fit in to All This
You may think this quite a tangent to take in reaction to being whitesplained, and you might be right. But I raise all this because I am often asked how people can begin to think about equity and justice. They’re interested in law enforcement issues, or gentrification, or equity in general, they tell me, and they’d like to know more, but they have no idea where to begin.

For a person of color or someone who is immersed in these issues and communities, that is a daunting ask. Much of what we speak of comes from having lived at the intersection of several vectors of oppression. Or from the experiences of family and friends. Or from the experiences of the communities we live and work in. These things are lodged in our bones.

Because of this, it is kind of hard to point aspiring equity students in a particular direction. Instead, they are most likely going to be told to start with themselves – to begin by interrogating their own privilege.

There are articles one can read, to be sure (I’ve even written some of them). But there is no getting around beginning at the beginning: figuring out how to unpack your own privilege. There is no end to asking yourself if the assumptions, experiences, and aspirations you take for granted and that are about tumble out of your mouth really apply universally. And there is no substitute for going out into the world beyond your own to conscientiously explore someone else’s.

No one can do that work for you.

And no one will promise that it will be easy.

But I can tell you that shifting the focus from the bicycle to the body that is moving through space on those two wheels is one way to kick that door ajar.

It allows you to revisit just about everything you thought you knew.

It will give you room, for example, to question what “street safety” means to a kid who grew up in a historically disadvantaged community of color where law enforcement is not an ally.

It allows you to ask what it means to do “community engagement” or “place-making” where the community already has a very strong sense of place, but where insecurity in and oppressive policing of the public space meant community had to be built in private spaces.

It helps you think about what kind of parallel programming or investments you may need to consider to ensure an “improvement” does not speed up gentrification and displacement.

And it gives you license to move beyond bikes and conceptualize “mobility” more broadly, to explore the range of social, economic, cultural, and other barriers to accessibility faced by people from and living in marginalized communities.

The beauty of engaging in this kind of exercise – contrary to charges often leveled at equity advocates, myself included – is that it won’t make you anti-bike or anti-bike lane. What it may do is push you to ask yourself if you are truly planning for everyone and what might need to change, if you should find that you are not.

It has long been held in mobility advocacy that making our streets safer for the most vulnerable road users makes them safer for everyone. The traumatic and tragic encounters between law enforcement and people of color unfolding in our streets and on the devices cradled in our hands make that mandate feel more imperative – and often more distant – than ever.

While bike and mobility advocacy is unlikely to resolve this problem on its own, it is clear that the time for a shift in thinking is upon us. If we are to have any hope of designing safer, more accessible, more just, and more welcoming spaces and communities for all, our analytical frameworks cannot continue to privilege bikes over the bodies that ride them.

If nothing else, it seems like a far more productive solution than blocking me on Twitter, no?

  • Matt Ruscigno RD MPH

    Yes, all of this! This is really, really excellent and I hope well-meaning folks who are initially uncomfortable with this topic will take the time to let Sahra’s points sink in. Because this is what justice is about and how change must come. Thank you Streetsblog for publishing this (and Sahra for being brilliant, of course)!

  • Oren

    Sahra,

    Your advocacy for the disadvantaged is both fierce and thoughtful. I always look forward to feeling uncomfortable reading your stories. Thank you.

    When I read this story, I found myself nodding in agreement. Bodies, not just bikes – makes a lot of sense. Unpacking my own privilege – humbly and erratically working on that. Asking what “access” and “safety” mean to a person whose relationship to law enforcement is much more fraught than mine – yes yes and yes.

    But then what? I can talk the talk, and think the thought, but how does this translate into action? I can check my privilege when thinking and talking about bike infrastructure – but then what? Should I spend more time engaging the disengaged? It can’t be as simple as that. Should I spend more time engaging law enforcement? That’s not in my job description (maybe it should be?).

    I don’t mean to gloss over the problem of privilege in the mobility community. You wouldn’t have to write stories like this if we were ready to move on from it. I’m just at the point, personally, where I feel like my education on equity issues is outpacing my education on what to do to address them.

  • sahra

    Thanks for the kind words. And great questions. And we’re/I’m still working on the answers. But the point you make about the fact that I still have to write pieces like these is really the heart of where I think I was going, at least at the moment. There are more and more ‘woke’ folks in the mobility community, but I’m not necessarily seeing the frameworks change. I’m seeing more tokenization, but I’m not seeing actual shifts in frameworks. For years, I was the only one raising questions of racial profiling at planning forums. I told people it was the single-biggest issue men of color in the communities I covered faced. People told me I was crazy – they had never heard of such a thing, no one had ever raised such issues in planning forums. One person told me I was probably hanging out with the wrong people. Now you see more of us raising these issues, but the frameworks remain the same. Programming structures remain the same. Planning structures remain the same. Funding structures remain the same. Benchmarks for “success” remain the same. And advocates remain unsupported. Safe Routes didn’t step in when I got told I was a troll. It’s rare to see people step up as allies when justice advocates are dismissed out of hand in online or planning forums or tokenized at local or national summits. The justice advocates need help in changing those frameworks – working from within the system has left too many of us exhausted.

    How do we desinstitutionalize the biases and the overwhelming whiteness of the culture that guides all of our priorities and structures? I guess that will be the next chapter…

  • It is tough. People are uncomfortable talking about race in general, and people are also uncomfortable with the idea that they are privileged. I have to admit that I feel that discomfort myself. My dad is black and my mom is white, but I am often perceived as white or hispanic. Does calling me privileged mean that I didn’t work for what I have, or that I’m not a good person or that I’m racist? But I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. Maybe another way of putting it is that everybody should be equally privileged. People shouldn’t be more likely to be harassed or mistrusted or killed simply because of their race.

    I think one interesting aspect of the privilege is not feeling the same sense of urgency about police killings as you would if you were non-white and didn’t feel safe just on account of your race, or wondering if the next time you saw a cop you could end up dead for no good reason. So, if people of color are angry about that, I shouldn’t perceive that anger as a personal attack on myself. In fact, we should all be angry about that.

    On the other hand though, people need to come together across racial lines. I see it in my own family. I just think about black and white people marching together is Selma and stuff like that. Unity is possible, and it’s beautiful. So, I guess that’s worth feeling bad about.

  • Historically in L.A., law enforcement was deployed to enforce segregation and police the movement of the Black and brown populations crowded into neighborhoods decimated by red-lining and other discriminatory policies, disenfranchisement, denial of opportunity, and disinvestment. More recently, police have played an indirect role in facilitating gentrification by responding to calls to “protect” wealthier newcomers from “suspicious-looking” lower-income residents of color and monitoring public spaces (and the movement of residents) more closely in gentrifying areas.

    This really is the story of cities all across the country and the very important supporting information missing from the current actions of groups like BLM. People like to smear them and falsely equate gang violence to police violence then punctuate it with “well if you don’t like the police, don’t call them”, but the truth of the matter for many communities is that they’re already more or less at that point because of the reasons that you pointed out above. As such, the groups are not just protesting the deaths, they’re protesting this whole culture of state-supported suppression. It helps when people realize that the guy who is “Suzie’s daddy the policeman” for career day at school is the same guy who lied to Shanae’s brother to get him to snitch on his friend and now the both of them are in prison for something petty that Suzie’s brother and friends also got caught doing, but had it overlooked. That’s the missing story behind the protests that hopefully more people will realize exists.

  • sahra

    If you’re mixed race, then you should know better than anyone that asking if you didn’t work for what you have is a straw-man question and has little to nothing to do with the kind of privilege folks are talking about when they talk about privilege.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Streetsblog Interview: Andres Tena

|
Back on the bike: Tena after the "Bike Not to Work Day" ride last week. Late one Thursday night, or early on Friday morning depending your point of view, this April an H3 Hummer hit a cyclist, and what followed is a controversy that fuels emotions that rivals last year’s Mandeville Canyon “Road Rage Doctor” […]

What to Expect at Friday’s Critical Mass

|
Believe it or not, this was done with the officer’s consent. Photo: Digable Soul/Flickr Critical Mass has gone mainstream.  Following last month’s "Critical Mass Attack," where an officer was caught on tape kicking at cyclists’ bikes before the cameraman was tackled to the ground, it seems you can’t go anywhere without reading or discussing Critical […]