Freedom to Be Inclusive
At the October 2nd ALOUD event with David Byrne I couldn’t help but notice the lack of racial diversity in the crowd. It did not match the demographics of Los Angeles and certainly did not match the demographic that rides bicycles in Los Angeles.
Where was the working class?
Where were the Latinos?
Where were the Asian-Americans?
Where were the black people?
Was I ever going to go to an alternative transit event in ethnically diverse Los Angeles that was racially diverse? I would think the alt-transit movement would be perfect to bring together the mosaic of cultures in Los Angeles, but it seems to always be the perfect storm that misses hitting the giant island of racial diversity.
One person that has an answer for a more inclusive cycling community is James Spooner, a former New Yorker who started the Afro-Punk movement with a little film called Afro-Punk.
Spooner hosts Freedom Ride, a ride that meets the last Sunday of every month for "black kids" on bikes. It is named after the Freedom Riders of the 1960s who rode Interstate buses and railroads to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.
I sat down and talked to James Spooner about the bicycle community and issues of diversity in Los Angeles. We discussed how to walk on the delicate tightrope of being inclusive to people of color and how to explain that to your friends who aren’t of color.
"Say you’re in your thirties, you’ve got a Mohawk. You’re not a hipster. You’re not a person who got a Mohawk yesterday because it’s cool. You are a grimy fixed-gear rider who has had a Mohawk for 20 years. You know what it’s like to feel ostracized. And you know what it’s like when you go to a punk concert and for those two-to-four hours you feel free. You feel that everybody there understands you. You can be exactly who you want to be without feeling ridiculed or less than. Then you leave that place and you go back to being the grimy punk rocker that everyone looks down on. Well, that’s how black people feel and there are not enough punk shows for us to go to. That’s why I do the ride," James Spooner, recanting a story to me when he tried explaining to a friend the Freedom Ride. Unfortunately, the friend still didn’t get it.
We talked about why women’s rides were viewed as OK but the Freedom Ride was viewed as a problematic or divisive. "There is not a problem with the (women’s rides.) Men are more comfortable with being called a sexist than being called a racist. If they support a women’s ride they are being liberated, but to admit that black people need their own thing that would be admitting that there is still racism and they might be part of it. To think that their friends, which is the real hard thing for them to grasp, that their one black friend that this would appeal to that person, it would mean that their community is racist. Racism has a bitter, vile history that is in close proximity-if they acknowledge that we aren’t equal than they’ll have to do more work," said Spooner.
I believe that is the key to the alternative transit movement and the environmental movement in general. It is about putting in the work. James and I talked about if there was an actual bike culture in the Los Angeles or was it just a community. We agreed that there was a community and that it has the potential to become a culture, but it’s not there yet. If the bike community wants to become a culture in Los Angeles then it is going to have to become more inclusive-not just racially, but also in regards to socio-economics and family status. The alt-transit community has to be about affordable housing and safe streets and it also has to be about gender and racially equality. In my opinion bike lanes alone will not build a bicycle culture in Los Angeles; they will certainly help, but bike lanes and bike boulevards are not the most important components in creating a bicycle culture in Los Angeles.
If we want to build a community that becomes a culture, something precious that has the ability to be passed down to our children and their children and not become the next hot thing marketers try to sell, we’ll all have to work a little bit harder.