(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)
“Occupy the streets! Until we get peace! Occupy the streets! Until we get peace!”
Reeling from a (yet another) violent summer where gang members have ruled the streets with guns, about 150 people joined the Take Back the Streets Ride in New Columbia on Sunday. Armed with bicycles and a powerful sense of unity, they stood up to their fears. As they pedaled, chanted and smiled, they started a new narrative about the public space outside their doorsteps and showed how bicycles can be an effective tool for grassroots, social change far beyond the central city.
Nearby resident Deborah Moore showed up with her two daughters, Imara, 11, and Nia, 6. “I just figured we need to be out here to represent,” she said. “We’re not going to fear our community. We’re here. We’re a viable community… We won’t be afraid to walk and bike.”
There’s a strong connection between bicycling and this nascent anti-violence movement.
The creators of the ride — De Marcus Preston, Jason Washington, and others — started riding for fun and exercise with a group of friends just this summer. When someone got a flat on one of those rides a few weeks ago, they stopped into the Community Cycling Center to get it fixed. It was their first experience with that shop, but it left a positive impression. Later, when they decided to step up and do something about the shootings in their neighborhood, they reached out to the CCC and a partnership was born.
For Washington and Preston, it’s hopefully just the first of many partnerships that will help them form a united front against the pull of gangs that leads to tragedy and young lives being wasted behind bars.
A former gang member himself, Preston had been pulled over by police 78 times before his senior year in high school. Now Preston is a sports coach and community activist who helps young people see alternatives to the gang life. At Sunday’s ride he spoke to a TV reporter on camera, worked the megaphone at the front of the ride, and pulled a speaker in a cargo trailer behind his Trek mountain-bike. Stepping out into this leadership role is new for Preston, but it’s something he’s getting used to. “I’m used to keeping a low profile, especially when there are cameras around,” he said with a smile, after wrapping up an interview with KPTV, “But I’m going to step out of my box for this.”
Preston and many others in and around New Columbia have decided that it’s time to leave comfort zones and get active.
38-year Phil Clark showed up because his son is just entering high school and he wants him to be able to get there without worrying about the double-threat of gang and traffic violence. Clark, who doesn’t own a car, lives on the north side of Columbia Blvd, a high-speed, urban freeway where people often drive too fast. “That street is tough to cross,” he said. “There are no stoplights or anything.” He used to take TriMet, but he said he prefers his bicycle because it’s cheaper, more reliable, and it connects him to the neighborhood. “The more people that ride, the better.”
After rolling out from the CCC’s Bike Repair Hub at N Woolsey and Trenton, the group rode slowly through the streets of New Columbia. One of the ride leaders, Samuel Thompson, yelled into a megaphone and lead a series of chants. “If we’re out here on bikes,” he told the crowd, “We need to let people hear us!… What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!”
Here’s some video footage of the riding and chanting:
As the mass passed homes and apartments, people came out onto their porches and leaned out second-story windows to wave and yell their approval. After looping through New Columbia, the riders ended up at Columbia Park where informational booths, food, drinks, and, most importantly, shade awaited them.
Throughout the ride I saw a lot of conversations, handshakes, high-fives, and hugs. Just as leaders Washington and Preston hoped, they’ve started something much larger than a bike ride. Preston told me he’s already been contacted from activists in southeast Portland who want to do a similar event, and Washington said he hopes to use the ride as a platform for future organizing.
During the ride, I spotted Washington watching proudly as people on bikes streamed by, filling two entire city blocks. How does it feel to see this? I asked. “I’m so proud. So happy. It almost brings me to tears,” he replied. “I’m just happy so many people came out and shared this with us.”
– To get involved and follow this initiative, stay tuned to our Front Page, check out the event on Facebook and/or follow future announcements from Community Cycling Center.