Rally for Naj

I 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 the rally planned for today to protest his court date instead turned into a rally to discuss racial policing. Speakers included Naj himself, as well as Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (who also wrote a letter in support of Naj), and several folks from Red, Bike and Green, the organization Naj was leading the ride for when he got arrested. The general theme was that even though this particular case has been resolved, the structural problem of racially-biased policing remains.

Justice for Naj rally

I think the most thought-provoking point, for me, was about the suppression of black expression. A group ride is an expression of solidarity, especially for groups like Rich City Rides and Red Bike and Green which are founded in concepts of social justice. The bicycle, to them, is a way to break down barriers between communities, and walls holding people in. Poor kids from Richmond, or from Oakland, can get on whatever bike they have, or the bike shop will build one for them, and the group ride will take them to Albany, to Berkeley, or to the East Bay parks. They’re not stuck in their neighborhood.

The sound system is integral to the group ride. Critical Mass understood this 25 years ago; the sound system represents a moving transformation of urban space, and if you’re close enough to hear the music, you’re participating in that transformation. It’s fun, but more than that, for these black and brown faces, the sound system creates a safe space, a bubble of sound that allows them to travel through areas where they would not be safe otherwise.

We bike Oakland

In the case of Critical Mass, that bubble was protecting riders from cars. For Rich City Rides, it’s also protecting black kids from the kinds of harassment they experience when traveling outside their neighborhoods, including harassment by the police.

Justice for Naj rally

After the gathering and speeches, Nakari suggested that the group ride over to Lake Merritt. We had a fun ride past City Hall and up Broadway, with RB providing the tunes from his scraper trike.

Justice for Naj ride

The problem of racism in America is too large for any one city to fix, but Oakland at least seems to want to do better. Even in this incident, the Oakland PD never made a statement justifying their behavior; they knew it was wrong. The question is, what do you do about it?

I’m going to be helping Naj by providing some data analysis on police stops in Oakland and other cities. The OPD’s history on this is bad enough that they’re now collecting racial data on every stop, which has already provided new ways to talk about the issue. I’ll see what I can find digging into it.

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