“I Can’t Go Everywhere that I Thought I Could Go”: When Black and Brown Cyclists Need Safety from More than Traffic

Slimm, 25, Los Ryderz member, on his bike in Ted Watkins Park in Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Slimm, 25, Los Ryderz member, on his bike in Ted Watkins Park in Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“I knew where I was,” muses Slimm, the 25-year-old road captain from the Los Ryderz Bike Club regarding his fateful decision to roll past 65th on Broadway – the heart of East Coast Crips territory, “but I was just riding by…”

Keeping track of whose territory you are in is key to survival for many young men growing up in South Central.

The area’s oldest gangs are rooted in a self-help spirit – pushing back against violent white incursions into their neighborhoods while instilling pride and a sense of ownership in young black men during a period in which they were aggressively denied so much. But the cumulative legacies of segregation, disinvestment, denial of opportunity, mass incarceration, and repressive policing since pushed them down a more destructive path.

While gangs still offer young men (and sometimes women) validation, a surrogate family, respect, a sense of belonging, a support system, a sense of security, and even a source of income for some, they also exact a high toll on communities.

The contested nature of public space limits everyone’s mobility.

Fear of getting caught in the crossfire or being mistaken for someone else can keep many from lingering outside in the open, even at playgrounds, or walking or biking around the neighborhood, to work, or to school.

Several people have been shot while biking over the last year, including a man in Lincoln Heights, a man near 41st and Main, two men riding near the Indiana Metro stop in Boyle Heights, a man and two women on 77th St. in Florence-Firestone, 39-year-old Jamel Lewis in Pico-Union just two weeks ago, and 17-year-old Jonathan Salas.

Salas, a beloved young man who was part of the police cadet program, was riding home from the dentist at 11:30 in the morning near Hooper and 92nd Street when he got caught in between two people who were involved in an altercation and a third party that had pulled up to fire at them.

The memorial set up where Jonathan Salas was killed last summer. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The memorial set up at 92nd and Hooper, where Jonathan Salas was killed last June, reads, “Salas! We will always keep you in our thoughts and in our hearts.” Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

More recently, youth just chilling in their neighborhoods have also been felled by bullets, including a girl sitting with her mother in a car just a block from where Salas was killed and 15-year-old Hannah Bell, cut down the other night while standing with her mother outside a popular burger stand at 78th and Western. Bell was killed just a block from where 21-year-old Justin Holmes had been executed while walking with friends last October – a story that only seemed to catch the city’s attention because the driver of the getaway car was a wealthy white teen from Palos Verdes.

The trauma of lost schoolmates, friends, and family members weighs heavily on entire neighborhoods. Not just because of the oppressiveness of the losses or the fear they instill, but also because of the way that their sheer numbers confirm what the community already knew all too well: that society does not value the lives of black and brown youth.

Young men feel this most acutely.

They often can’t move through their own streets without being checked, intimidated, or harassed by gang members and police alike, regardless of their affiliation. They may have to take circuitous routes to avoid particular corners. Local markets may be rendered off limits. Those who are trying to stay straight may have to change up their routes daily – including things like never waiting at the same bus stop twice in a row or getting a car – so they aren’t caught slipping.

Patrick “Matt” Wooten lost his brothers, Branden and Kejuan Bullard, within 6 weeks of each other while he was still in his late teens. Youth often wear the names of lost friends and family on their bodies, like walking memorials. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Patrick Wooten lost his brothers, Branden and Kejuan Bullard, within 6 weeks of each other while he was still in his late teens. Youth often transform themselves into walking memorials by inking the names of lost friends and family and the dates they were killed on their bodies. See more of that story here. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Joining up is one way youth deal with the challenge of navigating contested public spaces – it’s easier to move through the streets knowing that homies will have your back. But most soon find that the more “work” they put in and the more they become known, the more likely it is that they will be targeted, meaning there are even fewer places they can go.

This was an ever-present concern for Slimm.

He had decided to stop banging after his last stint in jail. He’d been in and out of jail since he was 15, and just before he turned 18, he found himself looking down the barrel of an eight year sentence – juvenile life. An appeal got him out after three, and he was determined to turn things around.

But the streets never forget.

Slimm. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Slimm. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

As he rolled past 65th Street, a guy from East Coast that he had done time with looked up from his phone and did a double-take, calling out, “Hey, hey, I know you, huh?”

“I knew who the dude was,” he says, “so I was like, ‘Nah, bro…I don’t know you.'”

Too late.

Two of the guy’s homies tumbled out of the house. All three piled into a car, and the chase was on.

Slimm says he rode to the burger stand at Gage and Broadway, leaned his bike up against the wall, and awaited his fate.

He wanted it to happen the right way, though. “I know y’all not about to jump me,” he said, offering to fight them one-on-one.

They weren’t about fairness. One took his bike. Another had a gun tucked into his sweater. “So, we got into it,” he says.

Next thing he knew, he was running up the middle of a busy Broadway at rush hour in the rain. They chased him all the way to Slauson – six long blocks north – before a girl he managed to call picked him up.

“After that day I put it in my head like, OK, I can’t go everywhere that I thought I could go,” he said. “And from that day forward, I limited myself. If I don’t feel comfortable or I know I can’t go in that area, I have no problem telling whoever I’m with, ‘Hey I can’t go in that area.'”

It comes up more often than you might expect.

[The map above represents the piecing together of territories held by black gangs by gang researcher Alex Alonso. A partial map of Latino gangs is found here. Click on a territory to learn more about the sets within each of the territories. Please note: a) living within a territory does not equal affiliation and b) affiliation runs on a spectrum.]

Slimm loves to ride, though.

And his enthusiasm, quick smile, and commitment to community have made him well-loved in the cycling community in South Central. He’s also in high demand from other area clubs because of his skills as a road captain who takes the safety of group rides seriously. Which means he’s often rolling through former rivals’ territory. Being part of an organized ride on bikes insulates him somewhat – it’s part of the appeal of the Los Ryderz club for many of the Watts youth who would not otherwise be able to move through certain areas – but he says he still feels uneasy.

When he had to stop and block the intersection of Broadway and Gage while road captaining for a Lady Riders’ ride, he watched his back the whole time.

“I felt a little safer because I was with the bikes,” he says.

And because he had his club vest on – something he hadn’t been wearing the day he was assaulted.

He wears it almost everywhere.

“I still gotta worry about the streets,” he says of wearing the vest. But because it signals to gang bangers that he’s not about that life, it acts as a kind of hall pass. It also lessens the likelihood that he’ll be mistaken for someone else.

“When I have my vest on, I feel safe.”

The Los Ryderz logo was designed by club founder and president Javier "JP" Partida. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The Los Ryderz logo was designed by club founder and president Javier “JP” Partida. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

It also provides a buffer against police harassment.

Normally when he walks, he says, cops look hard at him.

“They try to intimidate you. They look at you and they expect you to turn your head and look down or something.”

It is something that he feels is profoundly unfair – these are his streets, too.

An aunt that helped him learn about his rights gave him the confidence to not accept that state of affairs.

“Because I know I’m not on probation, I’m not on parole – I’m on gang file but I’m not on gang injunction – I look at them back. You mad-dog me, I’m gonna mad-dog you right back,” he says of exchanging looks with the police. “I’m not scared of you. You can’t just pull me over and mess with me because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

When he got stopped while walking down the street one day and they asked to search his backpack, he says he calmly told them, “No.”

“Am I being [put] under arrest? Do you have probable cause to stop me?” he asked. When they replied in the negative, he said, “Have a nice day officer” and went on his way.

“They was mad because it’s rare that a young black person knows the law,” he says with a smile.

“They get mad,” he says again, this time with resolve, “but they can’t just do that.”

When he’s got the vest on, they might not even bother to stop him in the first place.

There’s “a different atmosphere from me having my vest on and riding my bike to me walking down the street without my vest or my bike. It’s a big difference,” he says. “Big difference.”

“Police look at me and keep going.”

He doesn’t mind wearing it – he’s proud of his club and proud to represent it.

But the fact that he has to wear it at all in order to be seen as anything other than a “threat” or a “criminal” speaks to how deeply these barriers to mobility are embedded in the segregationist foundations of this city.

Art Ramírez speaks during a Los Ryderz meeting. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The “Skrapfather” and bike builder extraordinaire Art Ramírez speaks during a Los Ryderz meeting last year, where Slimm (standing behind Art) was promoted to Sergeant at Arms. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Despite the fact that so many in L.A.’s disenfranchised cores must navigate similar contexts on the daily, it’s still rare to hear the full scope of these issues raised in discussions around mobility. Instead, planners and advocates tend to assume that access to the streets is a given, freeing them to focus on decontextualized barriers to safety like infrastructure and traffic.

Even recent efforts to get Angelenos to care about street safety and Vision Zero (the effort to lower traffic deaths to zero) by city officials and advocates alike have reified that hierarchy by repeatedly pointing out that there are more traffic deaths than gun deaths.

Technically, it’s a true statement. There were 244 traffic deaths in 2017 and 239 gun homicides.

But it’s a troubling juxtaposition.

For one, it’s counterproductive. To put that argument in a Vision Zero framework (as I did in a twitter conversation with Vision Zero L.A. found here), if fear of gun violence means folks can’t be out in their yards, visit their local parks, walk to nearby amenities, jog around their neighborhoods, wait at bus stops, be out after certain hours, or go down certain streets, they’re going to drive more and walk and bike less, compounding the very traffic problems that planners and advocates are trying to curtail.

More importantly, such a comparison obscures and minimizes the extent to which gun deaths and the conditions that facilitate gun violence are both concentrated in particular communities and can paralyze and traumatize them across generations, limiting far more than an individual’s physical mobility. This is especially true for black youth.

Disenfranchised communities bear the brunt of gun violence. The grey "H"s mark homicides between the end of October, 2017, and the end of April, 2018, according to the LAPD comstat database.
The grey “H”s mark homicides between the end of October, 2017, and the end of April, 2018, according to the LAPD compstat database. The teal gun symbols represent incidents where the charge involves possession of some sort of weapon. The majority of these homicides were gun-related and, as can be seen, are largely confined to lower-income black and brown communities (or pockets of lower-income black and brown communities within gentrifying areas), including South Central (the large swath of Hs south of the 10 freeway). Also see the L.A. Times for a mapping out of the 448 gun deaths across L.A. County over the past 12 months; the overwhelming majority of victims are non-white.

For Slimm, what this translates into is a fear of fully evolving into the human being he knows he could be.

“What I’m mainly scared to do is change 100 percent,” he says of trying to walk away from being hyper-aware of ways he is seen or being talked about, defensive, or even aggressive when the situation calls for it. As someone who continues to stay in his ‘hood, he knows that, at present, he doesn’t have the luxury of ever letting his guard completely down. “I changed. I’m changing still. But what I’m mainly scared to do is change 100 percent.”

“I say that because there’s been a lot of people – ex gang-bangers – that did whatever they did. Soon as they have a kid and really start changing their life,” he muses, “they get killed.”

A new father himself, he says, “That’s been my fear…that if I [change] 100 percent, I’ll get killed.”

“Everybody that have a messed up life. Everybody that change they life, that have kids – they get killed. Every single person. This killing around here is getting close to home. It’s starting to be in areas where I ride. The shit’s crazy. They’re not asking no questions no more. They just shoot.”

One only need follow him on social media to get a sense of how pressing an issue this is for him. Every time he hears of an incident in the area, he posts it on facebook – a kid that got shot when the car he was in got caught in the crossfire, a shooting at a nearby fast food joint he’s visited, a homie that got dropped, even his own recent brush with flying bullets while waiting at a bus stop.

Like many at-risk youth from the area, he hadn’t necessarily thought ahead because he didn’t know that he’d make it to his mid-twenties. Now that he has and has a baby boy, a new job, a bike family that makes him feel good about himself, and a chance at a real future to boot, mortality weighs heavily on him.

“You can’t even ride down the street no more. It’s not even [about] being a target. You gotta worry about innocent bullets, ‘Man, was this meant for me?'”

“There’s a whole lot you got to look at,” he says of what goes through his head every time he heads out the door. “A whole lot.”

Slimm in Ted Watkins Park. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Slimm in Ted Watkins Park. His bike has since been stolen. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Many, many thanks to Slimm for sharing his story. A follow-up piece looking at Slimm’s club, Los Ryderz, offers a window into what it takes to truly “reclaim” streets for youth in communities like South Central. See some of our past coverage of Los Ryderz here, here, here, here, here, and here. A partial list of other stories on the intersection of disenfranchisement, repressive policing, gang violence, and mobility can be found below:

The impact of trauma:

How violence in a community shapes youth behavior

Racial Profiling

Incorporating these issues into planning processes

  • Very interesting stuff

  • NATASHA

    This was an amazing article highlighting important issues that are often overlooked within active transport advocacy.

  • mx

    This was so good. Fantastic journalism.

  • LazyReader

    The cumulative legacies of segregation, disinvestment, denial of opportunity, mass incarceration, and repressive policing.
    *AHEM* Democrats.
    Mass incarceration: skyrocketed with the passing of the Clinton Crime bill
    Segregation: the first black Republican senator was elected in 1870, while the first
    black Democratic senator unbelievably didn’t serve until 1993, some 123
    years later.

  • “The area’s oldest gangs are rooted in a self-help spirit – pushing back against violent white incursions into their neighborhoods while instilling pride and a sense of ownership in young black men during a period in which they were aggressively denied so much. ”

    WTF? Somebody’s having a tough time with reality today. I’m white. If I cycle past 65th and Broadway, is that a “violent white incursion?” If so, are the East Coast Crips justified in killing me? This stuff is getting harder and harder to take seriously. It’s not a race problem, Sweetie. It’s a crime problem and it’s colorblind. Nice job injecting race into cycling yet again.

  • sahra

    Yes, I can cite examples… this is a pretty well known history and is an outgrowth of redlining practices that contained people of color to particular neighborhoods in the early 20th century. Whites beat blacks that moved through white neighborhoods, burned crosses on their lawns and bombed their homes, went into black or Latino neighborhoods to assault young men there, etc. (see more on the Zoot Suit Riots for one of the more famous examples). Police generally did not come to the aid of non-whites and brutality was common and the bombings of black and Japanese homes were not investigated.

    More on the impacts and consequences of segregation can be found here https://la.streetsblog.org/2017/09/28/america-walks-walking-toward-justice-series-the-color-of-law-and-residential-segregation/ and here https://la.streetsblog.org/2017/07/28/the-baldwin-hills-crenshaw-plaza-project-offers-window-into-history-of-redevelopment-legacy-of-white-flight/

    Of course gangs are rooted in the legacy of segregation and disenfranchisement. That’s not mysterious… that’s just a given. Gangs are also not what they once were, but it is important to know where they come and the contexts they exist within. If it was just “crime,” they’d have been taken care of by now. Crime is certainly an outgrowth of what they do, but it wasn’t the original organizing principle or what has allowed them to endure or have the hold on neighborhoods the way they do. And understanding that is key to being able to address them.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    In short, the Republicans of the late 1800s would be either be Democrats, or to the left of the Democrats, today. It’s hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass being a Trump supporter.

  • Jeremy

    Of all the stupid things people say, this is one of the classics. Pretending the policies supported by Republicans 100 years ago are the policies supported by Republicans today.

    LBJ, a Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Southern Democrats (like Strom Thurmond) voted against it, then switched to the Republican party.

    Teddy Roosevelt was a conservationist and a Republican. He signed the Antiquities Act to protect public land. Republicans today are advocating reducing public lands.

  • sahra

    Yes, mass incarceration advanced under Clinton. Defunding of social services happened under Reagan. Police brutality has been a constant under every administration, including Obama’s, and Jeff Sessions is diligently rolling back the ability of the DOJ to track and address it while Ben Carson guts housing programs and Trump celebrates white nationalists. No one has a monopoly on racism, sadly.

    I’m just going to announce now to you that I’ll cut off the thread if the plan is to hijack the comments with troubling tropes like this. This is Slimm’s story. He’s proud that his story is out there…he wants people to know what his community has endured, not only because of racist political parties, but because it’s a system that we’ve all participated in upholding and one that we all have an obligation to address.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Really great piece. Similar challenges in Chicago for sure.

  • tiabgood

    Mass Incarceration started skyrocketing with the “War on Drugs” that Nixon started, and then Regan and Bush both double downed on. Please watch the documentary “The 13th” on Netflix – this will give you a much more complete view of Mass Incarceration in the US.

  • Vooch

    sahra,

    we disagree on much, but in general your piece is a sensitive and well written piece.

    I would argue that framing the subject using a black vs. white lens leads one into a dead end.Much better to use socio-economic framework.

    After all, immigrant and tertiary worker communities have always developed self help groups – the Irish in Boston. The Italians in Brooklyn. Eastern European Jews in Manhattan. And of course the sub-culture was highlighted in West Sude Story.

    Naturally, the authories are terrrified of any association that are independent and self regulating. Therefore, the authorities do everything possible to destroy these associations

  • Jonathan Krall

    Great article. Thanks. In the book Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy, she suggests that the police could improve things if they focused more on solving serious crime. That is, if they demonstrated that black and brown lives really do matter. This would also push back against the perception that gangs need to police other gangs (because the police are letting them get away with murder).

    She also points out the need for resources to help young black and brown men, like Slimm, who have already decided to detach from the gangs. Again, we need to work within a framework that black and brown likes matter. Political leaders and police need to bow to the community, not the other way around.

  • sahra

    The best way to demonstrate black and brown lives matter is to behave like it, honestly. There’s very little trust in law enforcement in that community, and with good reason. Not stopping and frisking and demeaning the folks you’re supposed to protect and serve is really step 1…it starts at that level of basics. She’s not wrong. But this comes first.

  • sahra

    My sense is that you don’t have a good grasp on what socio-economic means in practice, because that is a framework I use.

  • RGD

    Due to the legacy of many old policies, as well as unintended consequences of modern ones, many times, socioeconomic status and race are linked. That’s not just true in the US, either, but around the world, too, at least to some extent. It’s very unfortunate.

  • sahra

    Yes, the 20 articles I linked at the bottom of my article and the article in question all make that clear.

  • Vooch

    sahra,

    The fact that your readers comment incessantly on the black vs. white subject and never touch on the socio-economic should validate my feedback

    and calling your readers dim witted is rather poor judgement

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Cite research for your claim. This is such a SJW-slanted piece with that introduction. And the Zoot Suit riots have nothing to do with the origins of the gangs. That happened decades prior. When you start an article with an agenda-driven claim it pretty much renders the rest of your article questionable.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    I’m going to shut down conversation and debate after writing an agenda-driven piece that pushes a narrative if people disagree with me. Take your ball and go home Sahra.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Thomas Aquinas, and Jesus himself no doubt would all be Democrats today.

    But the real question: how do FDR and Truman fit into your binary?

  • sahra

    a. some of LA’s gangs date back to the 1920s…White Fence, Maravillas, 38th Street… maybe you should do your research?
    b. it feels like you’re just chiming in to hear yourself talk.

    i don’t know what “agenda-driven claims” you’re so offended by, honestly. this is a story about a young man who is trying to get on track and who fears for his life every time he steps out the door. there’s no narrative to “disagree” with, as you say below. this is just a young man’s real story. he’s a great guy and he and i know he and his friends are reading these comments, so i’m definitely protective and more likely to police folks offering up casual racism or trying to make provocative statements intended to get people riled up. maybe that person I responded to heard and respected that plea – they deleted their own comment.

    for once i’d like stories like this to not have white people screaming in the comments about how race has nothing to do with anything. i don’t know why the existence of stories like Slimm’s are so threatening. but clearly they are.

    all my best,

    sahra

  • sahra

    Or, alternatively, many of my most vocal readers are mostly white and/or of privilege and have precious little experience with intersectionality and marginalized communities. You, for one, keep referencing a “black-white” frame, which I have never and would never use because of how incredibly useless such a framework would be, and I certainly didn’t use here.

    I literally have a stock shorthand for how I frame the context within South Central – poke through any article on gentrification/housing, policing, etc and you’ll see i tend to describe the area as impacted by decades of disenfranchisement, disinvestment, denial of opportunity, and repressive policing. I deploy those concepts and that framework in this story. If you don’t understand what that means, say so – I’m happy to explain or point you to more links where I lay out what that means for the community in practice. In fact, here, have this one that describes the importance of understanding the socio-economic impacts of segregation: https://la.streetsblog.org/2017/09/28/america-walks-walking-toward-justice-series-the-color-of-law-and-residential-segregation/

    It’s obviously within your rights to take a nuanced framework, reduce it to “black-white,” blame me for your mischaracterization, and top it off by claiming i’m insulting my readers by pointing out you might want to revisit your interpretation… but I don’t quite understand what is gained by it. It seems to bring you joy however, and I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours.

    All my best,

    sahra

  • Vooch

    attract more bees with honey than vinegar

  • sahra

    Physician, heal thyself: Why do you think all of our streetsblogs’ comments board are filled with the names of the same white/privileged guys opining loudly and often and not populated with the voices of women and people of color? Because most women and PoC don’t have time for the misogyny and casual and overt racism found in so many of the threads… I wish I didn’t – it’s exhausting for me to have to engage it.

    Take the article I did on the overwhelming whiteness of the renderings of a project slated to be a gateway to a historic black community. It was shared over 10,000 times on social media. In those networks and in my own networks – which are mostly black and brown – people could not stop talking about how important and frustrating an issue this was for them and sharing examples of how it had affected their work. But peruse our comments section and you’ll find Erik Griswold was so incensed that I would bring up race he posted the same screaming attempt at a take down of me four times before finally deleting them… he’s hardly the only one that had troubling things to say on that thread.

    If I’ve learned anything over the six years that privileged folks have spent minimizing race and all that it intersects with at every possible turn, it’s that vinegar is not the problem.

  • Vooch

    Erik Griswald is a cool dude. He rocks

  • Hugh Shepard

    Good Article. Has LA ever considered creating a program something like Operation Ceasefire in Boston?

    (www.propublica.org/article/how-the-gun-control-debate-ignores-black-lives)

  • sahra

    On one hand, that’s not tenable because of how widespread the problems here – Boston’s were very contained. But it’s mainly because law enforcement isn’t the solution. I mean, city-wide community policing would be the best place to start – it’s making significant inroads in the housing developments. But the legacy of disenfranchisement means no gains are sustainable if there isn’t concurrent investment in youth, access to job training and jobs, investment in education and afterschool programming and mentorship and channeling resources towards folks in the community who are already doing incredible work, of which there are a great many… It’s really not rocket science, but we tend to prefer to lock folks up instead.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Defunding of welfare continued under Clinton, correct?

  • Nancy Johnson

    And a concerted effort among people of color to change this aspect of their culture and their communities. Big government can’t change those two things.

  • sahra

    You never miss an opportunity to offer up some casual racism, friend. Mission accomplished.

  • AndreL

    I think a program that helps seriously reformed people to just move away from their communities and relocate somewhere else could be part (emphasis on part) of a strategy that also brought more stiff criminal penalties against organized crime groups that exert or organize to exert territorial control in the manner of gangs.

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