Thoughts on racism, public space, and transportation activism –

Posted: May 30, 2020 at 6:44 am

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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. Weve 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, wed all feel much different at this moment. But the pattern is so sadly familiar that its 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 whats 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 didnt 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, its a clarion call for us to be more aggressive and proactive about confronting it and tearing it down.

What does this look like? I dont know yet. One thing Ive learned about complex issues like racism is that not knowing how to fix it, isnt a justifiable reason to avoid trying. Another thing Ive 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 isnt 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) doesnt mean it isnt 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?

Understanding racism and its intersection with biking and mobility isnt my strongest area of expertise (even though I have had some deeply personal experiences with it that have changed me forever). Thats why I dont post about very often. Its easy to stick to things Im 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 dont 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.

Im sad and sick about Americas racist treatment of black and brown people. Im aware of how privileged I am to be unafraid in this moment. Im 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 wont 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 youll 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 isnt something out there that wont let him come back. Hamzat Sani

Cars convey power and thats something people (cops included) respect. Ira Woodward

If residents dont 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. Im 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

Its 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 dont 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

Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and Get our headlines delivered to your inbox. Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.

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Thoughts on racism, public space, and transportation activism -

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May 30th, 2020 at 6:44 am

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