18 August 2018

Biking While Black

I read Huey Newton's Revolutionary Suicide many years ago.  As I recall, it recounts, among other things, his and his peers' often-tense interactions with the police of his native Oakland.  Many of the incidents would today be called Driving (or Walking, Barbecuing, Reading or Fill-in-the-Activity of Your Choice) While Black.

Frustration over such incidents inspired him and his friends to start the Black Panther Party.   Whether or not you agree with his way of dealing with the poverty, racism and violence that defined life on the mean streets where he grew up, it's hard to argue against his observations and analysis.  After all, so much of what he described could have happened yesterday.

As a matter of fact, it did--or, two weeks ago, anyway.  On 3 August, Najari "Naj" Smith was leading a group of 40 young cyclists through the streets of Oakland on a regularly-scheduled First Friday ride.  You guessed it:  He and most of those cyclists are black.  

They all belong to organizations that consist mainly of African-American members.  One of those organizations, Rich City Rides, was founded and is led by "Naj" himself in the nearby city of Richmond.  RCR teaches young people bicycle mechanics and gives them opportunities to work for their own bicycles.  It also offers guidance on healthy lifestyles and positive social interactions through group rides, public path maintenance and civic advocacy on transportation issues.  

It should be noted here that Richmond today, in many ways, parallels the Oakland of Huey Newton:  It is darker (in skin tone) and poorer than surrounding Bay Area communities.  It also, until recently, had one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation, and many residents feel they are always "under suspicion" by the police.  Oakland, on the other hand, is quickly gentrifying as even well-paid professionals find themselves priced out of San Francisco and other communities on the west side of the Bay.  This has exacerbated tensions between the remaining African-Americans and the Oakland Police Department (which disproportionately stops and arrests African-Americans) not to mention the white gentrifiers who too often call the police when black people simply live their lives in public.

Najari “Naj” Smith was leading a group of about 40 young riders when he was arrested by Oakland police.
Najari "Naj" Smith

Such was the case two weeks ago, when someone apparently complained about Naj and the other riders when they formed a "bonding and healing circle".  A police officer broke into it without warning and grabbed Naj's handlebars.  

The officer explained that Naj was being detained for "excessive noise" coming from a stereo on a trailer behind his bike.  Smith says he immediately complied with the officer's request and turned off the stereo.  The officer told him to "stay put" and momentarily walked away.  Smith thought the officer was going to write him a citation.  Instead, the cop handcuffed him, confiscated his bicycle and stereo equipment and whisked him off to the Santa Rita Jail, where he spent the weekend.   Smith made his $5000 bail and has  a court date for the 31st of this month.

"I cooperated with the officer as much as possible," Smith said. Members of the group were upset and he was "trying to put the best example forward" so the incident "wouldn't turn into a mess."

It seems, though, that no amount of compliance is any match for police officers who make up the rules as they go along.  According to Oakland PD spokesperson Felicia Aisthorpe, Smith was detained for "interfering with traffic and playing music too loudly."  Moreover, she said, he did not have proper identification. (Italics mine.)

The officer who stopped me in Harrison two years ago was looking to make the same charge against me.  As it happened, I had my New York State non-drivers' ID with me.  He tried to claim that he could arrest me for not having "official" ID; I countered that the document was issued by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and is therefore official.  He wasn't too pleased with that; so he wrote a citation with the largest fine he could get away with.  

Since then, I've checked with a number of reputable sources, all of whom confirmed what I'd already known:  that there is no law in New York State (Harrison is in Westchester County) or anywhere in the US that requires people to carry ID or to show it to police officers. But I carry mine with me anyway for situations like the one I've described.

Whether or not "Naj" Smith had his ID on him or needed it probably isn't the real issue, as far as Ms. Aisthorpe and the arresting officer are concerned.  He is from Richmond and he was in Oakland, cycling while black.  


  1. You do not have to be dark skinned to get harassment, police have always behaved in stupid and nasty ways for as long as I can remember. They resent the poor and the most horrific case I have known was against a woman friend driving a sportscar which they clearly resented. She was so shocked that she would not press charges and have to relive it in court. Even her lawyer was appalled so that says something! Nasty incompetents are all that "protects" us from the criminals!

    1. Coline--Early in my transition, I was stopped while riding home from work one day. I think the officers were curious, if you know what I mean.