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Thoughts on racism, public space, and transportation activism

Posted by on May 28th, 2020 at 2:09 pm

(From Seeing & Believing Bike Equity, Adonia Lugo/League of American Bicyclists 2014)

It feels awkward to publish content about bicycling and streets when so many people are hurting and struggling under the weight of current events — especially when those events seem (at first glance) to have nothing to do with transportation.

But look beyond the surface of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the woman who called 911 on Christian Cooper in Central Park this week and it becomes clear that these situations are about something we talk about on here all the time: Safe access to public space.

In the past few weeks BikePortland has been all about public space, providing a platform for discussion of open streets and boosting signals of people calling for more of them. We’ve mentioned equity and racism here and there. Today though, those ideas merit more than a mention.

If the murder of George Floyd and the racist phone call from Amy Cooper were isolated incidents, we’d all feel much different at this moment. But the pattern is so sadly familiar that it’s an inescapable truth that everyone who cares about bicycling, transit, open streets — or whatever your transportation activism persuasion is — must not only learn and absorb what’s happening right now, we must allow it to re-wire our brains and alter our consciousnesses in a way that prevents us from being hosts for the parasite of racism ever again.

It would be easy for me to not post anything about this. It would be easy for us to keep talking about bike infrastructure and bike fun culture (I had planned a post about Pedalpalooza today but a celebratory tone didn’t feel right) without facing these issues head-on. But the rising tide of overt racism in America is not only reason for us to acknowledge its role in transportation activism, it’s a clarion call for us to be more aggressive and proactive about confronting it and tearing it down.

What does this look like? I don’t know yet. One thing I’ve learned about complex issues like racism is that not knowing how to “fix it,” isn’t a justifiable reason to avoid trying. Another thing I’ve learned is how to follow and absorb thoughts and ideas from people like Tamika Butler. In her latest post, Stop Killing Us, she shares five vital questions for white people who want to help: “Do I understand that not being racist isn’t the same as being anti-racist? Why am I so afraid to be brave enough to confront my power and privilege? What am I waiting for to decenter whiteness and realize just because I have never experienced it (or seen the research to prove it) doesn’t mean it isn’t real? What am I doing every single day to force myself to think about racism and white supremacy? What am I doing every single day to stop the killing of black people?”

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Understanding racism and its intersection with biking and mobility isn’t my strongest area of expertise (even though I have had some deeply personal experiences with it that have changed me forever). That’s why I don’t post about very often. It’s easy to stick to things I’m comfortable with. But the idea of staying comfortable has been gnawing at me as I watch my news and social media feeds erupt with pain, indignation, and hard truths about the country I live in.

After Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, many people were very afraid of what his rise in power would mean for their lives. We know now that people who don’t live or look like me — a white, cis-gendered man from a stable, middle-income family — had very good reason to be afraid. After the election I shared a message on Twitter that if you have the privilege of being unafraid; you have the responsibility to do fearless work.

I’m sad and sick about America’s racist treatment of black and brown people. I’m aware of how privileged I am to be unafraid in this moment. I’m resolved to use this platform to help those who need it most but are least able or likely to use it.

I see the pain many are going through because of the brutal deaths of black and brown Americans and the daily impacts systemic racism has on public health. It won’t be ignored here. I promise to be even more vigilant and vocal about how racism influences our debates around streets, mobility and and public space. I hope you’ll join me, because the hard work of making a community more open and tolerant can only happen if we support each other.

——

Below is a series of quotes pulled together for a project called “Seeing & Believing Bike Equity” that was created by Adonia Lugo for the League of American Bicyclists back in 2014. We first shared these quotes when we were reeling from the killing of another unarmed black man named Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. I think (sadly) they remain very relevant today.

Read the quotes, or scroll through the slides via the PDF below…

“The policing of communities of color has always had a large impact on how we get around our communities.”
— Miguel Ramos

“Some of us believe in the free and safe movement of bodies in the environments that they occupy whether it be cycling or other transportation. I am constantly reminded of that when a Black mother tells me: “Every time he goes through my door I pray there isn’t something out there that won’t let him come back.”
— Hamzat Sani

“Cars convey power and that’s something people (cops included) respect.”
— Ira Woodward

“If residents don’t feel safe in a neighborhood in general, how can we possibly encourage them to be more exposed in that neighborhood by biking and walking more?”
— Matthew Palm

“What people can learn is to first question what solidarity means to them and is it the same as how people of color see solidarity? What types of actions manifest as a way to address these systemic issues? And relate it to how they can have these conversations in their own communities. I’m not sure if bikes can play a vital role for every city, but I see the bike as a symbol of autonomy and self-awareness, something that many people that are privileged do not understand.”
— Miguel Ramos

“By allowing communities to self-determine safety issues, we can then prioritize how we move forward and start to frame a message of bikes as being one factor that addresses safety in a community. We must show our solidarity for safe streets and how that is a different experience for each community, and most importantly building that trust and relationship to continue to follow-up with the overall needs of a community.”
— Miguel Ramos

“It’s important for our profession to hear that people of color in the US have good reasons to fear being physically unprotected in our public right-of-way, and to hear that there may be pretty fucking good reasons that people of color feel biking/walking projects should have lower priority than, say, police brutality.”
— Jessica Roberts

“I don’t think we can separate the bicycles from the bodies that ride them. Some of us have bodies that are perceived as inherently more political than others. I was thinking about that as the photos from Ferguson rolled in. There were lots of pictures of young Black men, and I thought: ‘Wow, those guys riding down the street would get a totally different response than I do.'”
— Michelle Swanson

SeeingAndBelieving

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Middle of the Road GuyGlowBoyJonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)ItgoesbothwaysAlan 1.0 Recent comment authors
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Brent
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Brent

Thank you for posting this Jonathan. I think one of the ways that white people implicitly defend racist systems is by making racism it’s own issue and compartmentalizing it away from other issues. This allows white people to justify silence by saying it’s not the issue they are working on. But race is an issue that touches and is affected by almost every other issue. Our systems have been built almost universally to the disadvantage of black and brown people, so every issue is affected by race in some way. Acknowledging how biking and transportation issues include racism and how we can address those issues along with our other goals is a meaningful step toward addressing racism in other areas of society.

The eBike Store
Guest

There is a vigil for George Floyd Tomorrow, Friday June 29th at 6pm in Peninsula Park

Kana O.
Guest
Kana O.

Thank you for having the courage and making the commitment to host conversations on these topics, Jonathan.

matchupancakes
Subscriber
matchupancakes

Thank you for opening discussion on the difficult, pervasive topics of racial justice and spatial justice, Jonathon. Everyone deserves safer streets and how safety is experienced varies across communities. Perspectives that challenge dominant narratives need to be included during decision making processes to produce better outcomes. Salud.

Barb Chamberlain
Guest

Thank you for this. I’m feeling the same disconnect between my “I love bikes!” brain and the realities of violence and injustice in the world, especially racial violence and injustice. The “I love bikes!” brain has to be situated within the brain and heart that work for streets that genuinely welcome everyone–streets where all of us can show up and come together without fear.

Dave
Guest

I have to ask this qiestion–are white men as a group fit to be police officers? I am. By the way, whit and male.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Thanks for writing this story Jonathan. I’ve been also trying to point out to people that the killing of George Floyd and the Central Park incident are related, and not just because they occurred on the same day. When Amy Cooper made that 911 call, she emphasized that it was a black man “threatening her life.” She did that because she knew it would provoke a different police response than if it were a white man. She knew it, and everyone knew it. We can all pretend policing is colorblind in this country, but everyone instinctively knows that isn’t the case.

And incidents like this just keep happening. In the many years I lived in Portland we had a number of questionable killings of black people by police, and we’ve had two of them here in the Twin Cities in the five years I’ve lived here. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s happening repeatedly. If anyone here thinks this is about Minneapolis, or that this is an isolated incident and it can’t happen where they live, they still don’t get it. There’s a lot of (justifiable) rage and frustration concealed just beneath the surface, and especially in these tough times it doesn’t take much for it to erupt.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

I do not necessarily see Cooper’s call as racist. Is it because she IDed Mr. Cooper as Afro American? I would do the same thing if I was reporting a crime. Why? Because the first question the 911 operator would ask is ‘Please describe the man’. She was obviously just getting ahead of the operator. And Mr. Cooper’s veiled threat and filming of her would be considered threatening by most women in a physically isolated situation such as this. He is a big guy. Yes, she probably over-reacted in the situation, but it no way justifies her being villified and her life destroyed by the PC police.

X
Guest
X

These videos keep appearing, of police not protecting the public from their fellow officers. I’ve seen in Portland that there seems to be a cadre, for lack of a better word, of officers who get either fear or respect from other police for their ability and propensity to use personal violence. Many police are bulked up and they all are armed more heavily than soldiers of decades past, but they do not all generate use of force complaints at the same rate. It’s against the culture (and maybe the training?) of police to interfere with the actions of other officers.

These videos arouse horror and righteous anger but we don’t see videos of paths not taken, opportunities lost, personal growth stunted, because people feared for themselves or their kids to go out the door. Many of us grew up riding our bikes all over town, to the library or down to the river. That’s denied to some. It’s because of fear of a real thing that goes beyond police violence to the mistrust of a neighbor or the brandishing of a phone.

These videos keep appearing.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Update from the front lines here … I took a long ride today to recon the situation today. Also happened to take part in a march downtown with thousands of others, which I didn’t even realize had been planned.
– Businesses are boarding up windows in many parts of town, including the entire length of Lake Street, and many of the office buildings downtown. When I stopped by Cup Foods it was in the process of being boarded, but otherwise undamaged.
– Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are boarded up downtown, as are grocery stores in the Seward, Longfellow, Philips and Powderhorn neighborhoods surrounding the Minnehaha/Lake hot spot, turning all of those areas into food deserts. I’m not hearing of a run on grocery stores in other parts of town, but I fear it may happen.
– Maybe offsetting this a little bit, there is a huge impromptu food-bank operation going on near the scene. I saw hundreds of bags of groceries on the sidewalk in front of a large building, being handed out to all takers. My understanding is a lot of it is fresh produce, too.
– The physical destruction isn’t as obvious outside a seven-block stretch of Lake, where numerous buildings are destroyed and still smoldering. For most of the several miles of Lake Street, businesses are boarded up, but you can’t tell which ones were looted or see any obvious damage other than the boards themselves. An army of volunteers has been out cleaning Lake Street, and there isn’t a spot of glass or other debris in the street anywhere. That’s probably not being reported in the national media.
– There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of people gathered today around the perimeter of the 3rd Precinct exclusion zone (including the Target, Cub Foods, Auto Zone, liquor store, Wendy’s and Arby’s that were attacked) currently being defended by the National Guard and State Patrol. Hopefully tensions will be reduced a bit now that officer Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder today, but even with 8pm curfews starting half an hour from now, I’m not sure people are going to go home. Several Metro Transit buses (which stopped running yesterday – our whole transit system has been shut down, which almost never happens here even with big winter storms) are lined up at the scene, presumably to haul off curfew violators. Not sure what tonight is going to be like, but I don’t have a great feeling about it. They only have an easily defensible perimeter on one side of this zone, and I’m concerned they might resort to force to try to defend it anyway. The Guard personnel are pretty heavily armed.
– Amongst this crowd there are numerous people handing out bottled water, sandwiches, snacks, as well as holding signs variously offering things like free hugs and crisis counseling. The number of kind, generous people who have turned out is heartening. You won’t see that on the news, but you’re hearing it from me.
– Bikes! So many people there on bikes! Lots of people at both the downtown march and the Lake Street scene arrived by bikes, many of them on Nice Ride share bikes. I’ve been disappointed to hear Biketown’s usage has been down so far, particularly since our Nice Ride system doesn’t seem to have taken that much of a hit. I see people out and about on share bikes all the time here, all through the pandemic, and today is no exception.

Cars as weapons
Guest
Cars as weapons

Thanks for the post. Please examine the use of cars as weapons during street protests. There’s the Charlottesville car attack, plus many more recent videos of car attacks that could have been tragic. What do the police think? If someone is protesting in the street, is it okay to bump them with your car, threaten to run them over, actually run them over…..If not, why aren’t officials speaking out on this before someone dies?

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

My favorite (maybe the only?) homage to East Lake Street. We will rebuild. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vd4aLl6A_o4

hickeymad
Guest
hickeymad

Seems to me the subtext of this article is that racism keeps POC from accessing outdoor spaces. In my opinion, this is a very one-sided view of “Safety” and that the claims of fear solely because of racism are greatly exaggerated. One would think, based upon just the statistics of crime, that the true danger to communities of color is the crime within their own communities. But these days exaggerated claims of harm are par for the course to push progressive agendas. Don’t be surprised when folks not brainwashed by the prevalence of this sort of narrative saturation push back. What’s most unfortunate, in my opinion, is that these deceptions reflect poorly on programs and policies that do actually have merit. People will only tolerate so much crying wolf before they start to disbelieve the messenger about most everything else.

The fact is that police use excessive force about equally across ethnicities. The difference in outcomes for communities of color is mostly a matter of there being more crimes in these communities and thus a greater police presence. Knowing this fact, we would craft solutions and policy decisions much differently than we would if we blames the exaggerated narrative of racism. And the solutions would have a better chance of actually changing things for the better in these communities.

I am not discounting that there are individual incidents of harm based upon racism. There are bad people in any group, and the Amy Cooper incident is a case of much intersectional irony given the fact that Mrs. Cooper was attempting to leverage not only her ethnic majority privilege but her female privilege as well (damsel in distress). It’s a toss up about which of these she was attempting to cash in on to the greater extent. You don’t have to be a person of color to understand the advantages that all women have over men in this regard.

To claim that in 2020 that racism is a systemic and institutionalized problem, or that it is in any way shape or form the largest problem for communities of color, is frankly absurd. That there are opportunists who attempt to play these claims up for political and personal gain shouldn’t be surprising, nor should the effectiveness and pervasiveness of these claims be given the level of progressive guilt and self-loathing well documented in the psychological literature. Unfortunately progressives do not seem to understand that their differing standards for their own vs communities of color amount to a very real sort of bigotry; the bigotry of low expectations.

It seems to me that the best thing we can do to encourage cycling in communities other than white is to stop treating them as any different than any other community. We (and the residents therein) should have the same expectations of safety and the same expectations for infrastructure spending. This Critical approach whereby we emphasize DIFFERENCES isn’t going to lead to the sort of ethnic harmony and peaceful communities that we should be expecting. The recent local history of activism steeped in critical theory has done little but impede the sorts of changes that we in the cycling community wish to see for our city; changes that emphasize easy access to safe transportation for everyone.

Itgoesbothways
Guest
Itgoesbothways

Didn’t you once get accused of being racist? And your response was “I don’t see color”. Which is one of the worst ways to make an apology.

Also, you whined about bikes being the most underserved community while same sex marriage was not nationally legal and you were married.

Stop acting like your shit don’t stink.