Biased policing of cyclists

Two of my recent bike-related experiences came together this weekend, when Naj K. Smith of Rich City Rides (who I met leading a ride last week) got arrested in Oakland for leading a ride on First Fridays with his sound system trailer. The bike and sound system were confiscated, and he was handcuffed and spent the night in jail. He made bail but the bike is still impounded.

We need all your support in helping Naj K. Smith get justice! On Friday Aug. 3 naj took a group of young people on a…

Posted by Jennifer Rougeaux on Monday, August 6, 2018

I happened to be riding down to First Fridays myself and saw the start of this ride. It was a little different than the ride I was on last week, almost all guys, mostly teenaged or early 20s. I’d expect there was some stunt riding going on, which is what led the cops to stop Naj (who, pulling the trailer, was almost certainly not stunt riding himself).

As I learned at the Let’s Bike Oakland workshop on policing, 60% of cyclists stopped by police in Oakland are black. Would I have been stopped if I had been the one pulling the sound system? I’ve ridden sound systems all over Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda and never had a cop look twice at me. I think it’s pretty unlikely I would have had a problem.

If I’d been on the ride with Rich City, would I have tried to intervene? Would I have been willing to go to jail to protest what I saw as an injustice? That’s a tougher question. I’d like to think I would have. My relationship to law enforcement is much different than that of an urban African-American, and that’s an unearned advantage I enjoy as an urban white. According to my ethics, I should be using that privilege to weaken systems of unearned advantage.

I wasn’t there, so I didn’t get to discover how I’d react. Unfortunately it’s all too likely I’ll get another opportunity in the future.

For now I just joined Rich City Rides as a member. You can, too; they’ll need money to deal with the legal situation. Another cause that could use some help is bail reform; check out The Bail Trap for a sobering documentary on how money bail reinforces systems of injustice.


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  • Rally for Naj - Bike Lab :

    […] was glad to hear this week that the charges against Naj K. Smith for playing loud music from his bike were dismissed, thanks to the outcry from the community and the pro-bono work of Walter Riley. So […]

    6 years ago

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