When a Progressive Community Fails to See Its Own Biases, Bullying and Bigotry Get a Pass

Livable Streets Community Struggles to See How its Approaches, Narratives Silence Voices on the Margins

When you have to navigate a landscape that wasn't created with you in mind. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
When you have to navigate a landscape that wasn't created with you in mind. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“Speaking very sincerely here, I struggle to understand why a more inclusive definition of safe streets is so offensive [to you],” I tweeted to Josef Bray-Ali (@flyingpigeonla), former bike shop owner, cycling activist, and now controversial challenger to the incumbent for city council in a largely Latino but rapidly gentrifying district of L.A. in March of 2016.

We were twittering about the inclusion of policies and practices that promote equitable and just outcomes in transportation for lower-income communities of color and others on the margins and I was getting tired of the insults he was lobbing at myself and others who do that work.

I usually did my best to avoid engaging Bray-Ali directly.

Despite his claims of being a “trained anthropologist” and of harboring a genuine interest in learning from people whose views differed from his own, he was much more forgiving of the racists he was supposedly “provoking” in the dark cesspools of the internet than he was of me and the lower-income black and brown voices I try to amplify through my work at Streetsblog L.A.

In fact, he seemed to take particular delight in trolling me just to let me know he wasn’t going to listen to anything I wrote on the topic of socio-economic justice in urban planning. On one memorable occasion, after a lengthy back and forth he acknowledged he hadn’t even read the article I had written. He just had assumed, per usual, that he knew what I was talking about and that he wouldn’t like what I had to say. On other occasions, he would silence me, declaring that if I didn’t give him the answer he wanted – regardless of how problematic his terms always were – I could show myself out of the conversation. Which was usually about the time that the insults would begin in earnest and he would position himself as the only one who truly cared about the carnage seen in L.A.’s streets. (*Bray-Ali deleted his comment history on Streetsblog; links to SBLA articles are to cached text-only versions where his comments – under “ubrayj02” – remain intact.)

He was a self-righteous bully, plain and simple.

I had seen it in person back when I first met him in 2005; it was the reason I had stopped getting my bike tuned up at the co-op he founded, the reason I stopped attending the Spoken Art rides he organized, and one of the reasons I didn’t feel comfortable being part of the nascent bike community. And it was the reason I kept my distance from him now – the inability to listen, the entitlement, and the unwarranted aggression made him exhausting to engage. Even online.

But I had spotted him twitter-trolling others working on equity/justice – spouting his usual complaint that equity was a distraction and that he had heard enough about the need to be inclusive – and I thought it was important for someone to check him for once.

Predictably, the conversation quickly went nowhere. He accused equity proponents of running a “racket” and stalling and burdening projects unnecessarily. He labeled the consideration of historical injustices and racial disparities a guilt trip. Several times. And, as always, he kept demanding I answer his questions on his terms, no matter how much I insisted that was impossible because his terms were too narrow and too explicitly exclusionary.

So I resorted to the sincere query that I’ve made to him on several occasions, namely: Help me understand why consideration of the needs of the most vulnerable among us – particularly lower-income black and brown communities – is so offensive to you?

I had first asked a form of that question in a Facebook post in 2015 – right around the time that Bray-Ali was ”tracking” and “learning from” racists in a voat forum called “v/N*ggers,” incidentally. I asked it because he and others in the Facebook group, Figueroa for All, were highly critical of the idea that racial profiling and the death of black men at the hands of law enforcement during traffic stops be a consideration in the implementation of Vision Zero (the effort to reduce traffic-related deaths to zero).

When the LAPD was made a lead implementing agency for Vision Zero here in Los Angeles, it immediately rang alarm bells for advocates like myself, the LACBC’s Executive Director Tamika Butler, and others concerned about abuses of police power. The concerns we have go far beyond those sparked by the murders we’ve all seen unfold on our screens since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson. For decades, the LAPD played an active role in the brutal repression of L.A.’s black and brown communities. Its relationship with those communities has yet to be healed in a meaningful way. As such, justice-oriented advocates want to know that, in the quest to save lives, Vision Zero will not amplify the abuses of force and power already being exercised against vulnerable communities of color.

If you’ll pardon my French: it is a super f*cking basic concept.

And yet upon learning that this topic had come up in a conversation Butler had with the councilmember for District 1, known to some as “Roadkill” Gil Cedillo for his abysmal record on complete streets, members of the Fig4All group were livid. Justice, they believed, would be used as an excuse to hold up Vision Zero implementation.

The more they objected, however, the more it became clear that they were upholding a position that many, like Bray-Ali, were already deeply invested in.

And when I weighed in to defend Butler and to argue that the acknowledgement of concerns about law enforcement was both important and separate from whatever agenda Cedillo had, Bray-Ali led the charge.

“How absolutely nit-pickingly myopic do you have to be to make *THIS* the issue you have with Vision Zero?” he demanded.

“Please, please, show me something to back that up other than, ‘Oh, I have concerns.’” he jeered. “…Why do we spend so much time coming up with new and stupid ways of hurting our own shared visions for this city?”

When I offered a lengthy discussion of the particular and historic vulnerability of black men, the challenge of tracking police harassment and violence, the importance of ensuring that the safety of some didn’t come at a high cost to others, and the idea that a vision that dismissed the struggles faced by people of color could not reasonably be considered “shared,” he called both Butler and I “concern trolls” and proclaimed,

“[It] Makes me want to quit doing anything in this city anymore. What’s next? No more advocating for clean parks? No more advocating against illegal dumping? No more advocating for effective safe schools? Law enforcement might have to get involved! Injustice! Go hang a shingle somewhere. ‘Concerns – 5 cents; Actual social justice and clean city? Impossible.’ Will this give us a bike lane? Will this give us more curb ramps? No. Will it be used as a red herring argument when livable streets issues pop up? Oh hell yes.”

Then, making sure that Butler did not escape explicit reprimand, he concluded, “Thanks again, LACBC! Can’t wait to be told to stop annoying Cedillo so you can continue to manufacture reasons not to do things.”

His raging at Butler online and later, in person at meetings to discuss the Figueroa bike lane, was particularly jarring.

Butler is a darker-skinned African American who identifies as gender-nonconforming/trans.

There is nowhere on earth where she is truly 100 percent safe.

Let me repeat that just so that is clear: there is absolutely nowhere on the face of this motherf*cking planet where she can take the safety and security of her person for granted.

Women have screamed at her and put their hands on her in restrooms because they thought she didn’t belong there. When she is pulled over by cops – something that happens all too often and for no legitimate reason – she has been treated as if she posed a threat, not just to officers but to her own white wife sitting in the passenger seat. The moments where she does not have to be cognizant of how others are responding to her presence are few and far between. And nowhere is this more true than in the public space.

Which means that when Bray-Ali called her a troll who was looking for excuses to thwart his agenda, he was essentially saying to her, I do not care about the challenges you face in accessing the public space. I do not care if efforts to ensure my physical safety cause you to feel even less safe or have the potential to cause you even more harm. Moreover, you and Sahra are terrible people for asking me to consider the vulnerabilities of similarly marginalized communities.

I’m going to be straight up with you here.

Yes, it is unsettling that Bray-Ali spent his time cybercavorting with basement-dwelling racists and their abhorrent fat-shaming, transphobic, and misogynist brethren.

But in many ways, I find the biases embedded in the statements made to Butler and myself far more disturbing.

Why?

Because they’re said out in the open. Without shame.

Because this is the platform on which he is running for office.

Because this is the platform by which he has been judged to be a champion of the livable streets community, regardless of how many times it was made clear that he saw no place for the addressing of race, class, or historical inequities in planning for a better Los Angeles.

And because he has yet to be truly checked about these biases by this community, his friends, or his supporters, Bray-Ali has been led to believe that as long as he stays out of “n*gger” forums, he is not problematic. So much so that he didn’t hesitate to come at me again several days after his sewer shenanigans blew up to suggest I was not as smart as he because I cared about kids like Jordan Edwards getting shot during traffic stops and to remind me that I am the real problem, that I seek the “non-implementation of street safety projects and a platform to discuss issues related to policing and institutional racism,” while he does the important work – “stick[ing] to my wheelhouse: trying to implement street safety projects.”

Yeah.

So you will forgive me if I am harboring a little rage at the moment.

Actually, that’s a lie.

It’s not a little rage.

I have been at DEFCON F.A.Y.A. for a week and a half now.

Not because Josef Bray-Ali is a troubling troglodyte. That is what it is. That’s his burden to bear. And he is, frankly, not my concern.

What is my concern is that Josef Bray-Ali is not outlier in this community.

He is not an aberration.

He is a product of this community and all that it represents. Most notably: how poorly it is able to examine and address its own implicit biases or acknowledge the extent to which it actively silences voices of color and others on the margins.

In fact, if this absurd episode has taught me anything about this community, it is that the divide between those who have the privilege of ignoring questions of access – access to power, validation, public spaces, safety, ears that can hear you, and eyes that can truly see you – and those who do not is so much deeper than even I had anticipated.

Which is saying a lot, considering that I recently had a well-respected white woman get up in my face after a project committee meeting and order me to “stop talking.” And considering that I am still regularly told that the issues I cover have nothing to do with livable streets. And considering that men of privilege constantly want to whitesplain transportation and housing to me, often by dismissing me outright, misrepresenting and misinterpreting my arguments, or cyberyelling me. And considering I wrote a whole screed about this divide after the Women’s March and men in the community immediately jumped into the comments to tell me not only how wrong-headed I was but how little I knew about white people and how to talk to them. And considering that some of the most obstinate and hostile obstacles to the inclusion of equity and justice in transportation are within my own Streetsblog network.

You get the idea.

Even with all that, I can honestly say I was genuinely not prepared to watch progressive people of privilege – including so many that claim to care about equity, justice, and inclusion – spend a week excusing away participation in “n*gger” chat rooms, engaging in lengthy and heated debates about whether putting the n-word in quotes made it more or less racist, proclaiming themselves to be oppressed minorities in need of bike lanes, pronouncing unsavory online habits as mistakes we all make, and being actively indifferent to any harm that might have been caused to those targeted by transphobic, fat-shaming, misogynist, racist bottom-feeders.

I did not expect to see so many cis/white/het folks actively silencing and pooh-poohing away the concerns raised by the very few folks of color and LGBTQ folks that were brave enough to dip their toes into the bonkers conversations going down on the Bike the Vote facebook page.

I did not expect to have so many people reach out to me personally to tell me that I was giving in to headlines – that they had known Josef for years; that he had always been nice to them; that they had never seen him be racist.

I did not expect to watch people parse out the “concern troll” Facebook conversation and tell me either that it was no big deal because Bray-Ali would have said the same thing to a white person or that Bray-Ali was right to argue the position he did and that I just didn’t get it. Sometimes they said both. Repeatedly.

I did not expect to see my own colleague wipe myself and Butler from this community’s map when he argued, without a hint of irony, that Bray-Ali had really only attacked anti-bike people and that he would still be voting for him because Bray-Ali was the candidate who would best support his “personal physical safety.” Or have said colleague interject on Twitter to minimize Bray-Ali’s problematic behavior while I was trying to have a nuanced discussion with someone about implicit biases.

I did not expect to see my own boss – whom I consider to be one of the best humans on the planet, but who also (along with my colleague) received several emails from me over the years about how Bray-Ali bullied and silenced myself and other voices of color – say that the first time he reflected on Bray-Ali’s behavior was when a reporter called him about Josef’s anthropological adventures.

And I did not expect to see the story in the L.A. Weekly, with an assist from my own colleague, whiff the race issue – allowing those of us who seek greater inclusion and a more just and accessible city to be called a “faction” and the divide between those who actively lobby for that more inclusive future and those that continue to see it as a “distraction” to be described as “healthy.”

People of color and other marginalized groups are not f*cking “factions;” they are not playing “identity politics.” Their lives are inherently more precarious because of how their race, class, status, gender identity, historical disenfranchisement, generational trauma, and denial of opportunity intersect with their ability to navigate a cis-gendered hetero-normative white-centered able-ist landscape that continues to exclude them by design.

And the fact that those groups are silenced or tokenized or bullied every time they try to challenge the existing narratives and biases that uphold that landscape is not “healthy” – it is seriously fucked up.

And it’s given me a lot of pause. So much so that I’ve actually said to a few people that I’m really not sure when I’ll be ready to look this community in the eye again.

But what do I know?

I am just a “concern troll.”

Because bike lanes.

***

I had lengthy Twitter exchanges regarding implicit biases and everything else over the last week that may help offer more explanation about what I am getting at when I am calling out biases. You can view some of those conversations here. Some of the threads branch off, so you may have to poke around. The lengthy Bike the Vote Facebook page conversations can be found here; poking around in the sub threads is the best way to get the full scope of arguments made. Last week, Tamika Butler gave a talk at the Vision Zero Cities conference in New York entitled, “I Am Not Your N*gger: Can Vision Zero Work in a Racist Society?,” where she spoke about her place in this saga, her relationship with the larger livable streets community, and the challenge of working within a community that only sees her when it suits their needs.

For those concerned about the publication of this story in an election season, please know that this story is not meant to influence or speak to that election in any way, shape, or form. As I’ve stated on my personal Twitter account several times, the decision about whom to vote for is between the voter and their god(s). We take no position as an organization, and I take no position here. My interest here is to address biases embedded in so much of the way that the livable streets community operates and so many of the approaches and narratives it holds dear. There was no way to do that without pointing out the way that someone who was so integral to shaping this community’s values went unchecked, and continues to go truly unchecked, for so long.

You can reach me on twitter, here.

  • sahra

    Hi Josef,

    This is the 3rd IP address of yours that we’ll be banning from our comment boards.

    All my best,

    sahra

  • Lyin Sahra

    Blackmail. Banning. Sounds like someone who can dish it out but can’t take it.

  • sahra

    Hi, Josef!

    This is the fourth IP address of yours that we will be banning from our comment boards.

    All my best,

    sahra

  • sahra

    Hi, Josef!

    This is the 4th IP address of yours that we’ll be banning from our comment boards.

    All my best!

    sahra

  • @Daymen:disqus, if the person commenting on these blogs named “sahra” and “Guest Sahra” is indeed an employee of Streetsblog, under your supervision, you may wish to consider the professional and legal implications of an employee of your organization making targeted remarks towards an individual, specifically the “Hi Josef” allegations that are naming JBA. First of all, what professional journalist responds so frequently and dismissively to comments on an article that the journalist authored? It’s unprofessional. (And it reinforces the perception that this is a personal vendetta.) Is Streetsblog just a community of bloggers who are writing as a community and are not beholden to generally recognized standards of journalism, or is it a professional journalistic enterprise that strives towards those standards? Why would the journalist who wrote the article also moderate the comments section??? It seems like Streetblog is struggling with what it “is” and what standards apply. Secondly, if any of these “Hi Josef” comments and perhaps portions of this article are untrue, it could possibly be considered defamation and may make Streetsblog vulnerable to a lawsuit. I’m not sure what the Streetsblog structure is, but if you have a national chain of command, you might want to ask for an outside review, since you are implicated in all of this, too.

  • sahra

    Hi Jonathan!

    We have a comment policy here in which we frown upon trolling, racism, sexism, misrepresentation of who people are, and personal attacks. For too many years, Josef’s comments have ticked many or all of those boxes, even when they were not directed at me.

    You can read our discussion on said topic here: http://la.streetsblog.org/2012/08/08/a-call-for-civility-and-a-change-in-l-a-streetsblogs-comments-moderation-policy/

    No portions of this article are untrue – not only are links to each of his comments, tweets, and FB remarks are provided (and I have back-up screenshots of everything), but he has repeated many of the things said to me in those other forums here in the comments on this story. But thanks for your concern.

    All my best,

    sahra

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