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Crosscurrents

East Oakland's Scraper Bike Team takes over the streets "with a positive heart"

At the end of a narrow alley off of International Boulevard, through the open doorway of El ColectíVelo bike shop, I’m greeted by a young boy.

“R.B.! It’s the lady here for you!” he shouts.

“R.B.” are initials I’ll hear shouted out a lot of today. They stand for Reggie Burnett. He’s the leader here.

R.B. was one of the first people in the neighborhood to start riding what are called “scraper bikes” – brightly colored franken-bikes with tall, road bike wheels stuck onto small BMX frames. The bikes are descendants of scraper cars, the tricked-out old sedans made popular in Oakland in the 1980s that sit low on their wheels and scrape the ground when they drive around. Scraper bikes started appearing around 2007.

R.B. is 25 years old now, but he remembers riding bikes as was a kid growing up in East Oakland.

“We all got in trouble. But riding bikes kept me out of trouble,” R.B. says, “So it prevented me from joining gangs or being a drug dealer or any bad things.”

R.B. leads me through a small workshop where bike frames hang from the ceiling and tire tubes cover the ground. Then, we emerge out onto a small patch of grass. It’s hot out and the sky is bright blue. The sound of music and vacuums blaring from the car wash next door mixes with the banging of tools, which R.B. explains is “the retrofitting of scraper rides and bikes.”

About 15 young boys and teenagers buzz around the yard, doing what R.B. calls “bringing greenery to the scenery.”

That means they’re brightening up the community, R.B. says, with color.

In one corner, a kid in a red and black track jacket is spray painting the wheels of his bike red, in front of a red rose bush. 

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Credit Audrey Dilling
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Sixteen-year-old Chuck Davis works on his Scraper bike.

Others are painting their frames––yellow, orange, pink––banging seat posts together, or sifting through buckets of spare parts.

R.B. says building bikes builds creativity in the kids.

“Once they’re more creative, it gives them a better way of thinking,” R.B. says. “They think more positively, and they make better decisions.”

Twelve-year-old Deondre Daley is working on what he calls a “donk”––another word for scraper bike.

“And I’m putting a full face on it. [That’s] when you put tape all over your rim,” Daley explains.

When the spokes are totally covered, Daley will spray paint the wheel over with a color.

Nearby, twelve-year-old C.J. Johnson is working on a big blue, white, and silver sparkling Schwinn three-wheeler. Johnson says he comes to the bike shop every Saturday because he likes being able to fix his bike himself.

Sixteen-year-old Chuck Davis adds that at the shop, you can also “ask for help and someone will help you.”

Davis says takes the bus here from San Lorenzo––two cities away––because there’s not really anywhere else like it.

“Nobody argues,” Davis says. “Everybody gets along.”

Without this place, 16-year-old Jayvon Brantley says there “wouldn’t be nothing to do. People be stuck at home causing trouble. Getting in and out of trouble. Getting in and out of jail probably.”

Some of the kids brought these bikes, or parts of them, to the shop today. Others started with the donated frames and parts they found here.

R.B. says he sometimes goes out on his bike with a big trailer, looking for discarded parts around the neighborhood. He also puts up flyers asking for donations.

“We don’t want your money,” he says. “We want bike parts to make another bike out of spare bike parts.”

And bikes they make.

R.B. says: “I had about eight kids come without a bike, and they’re going to leave with a bike and a smile on their face.”

Those smiles come with just one condition.

“My thing is: Go to school,” R.B. says. “That’s all you’ve got to do. And then they’re welcome to come every weekend. If their teacher or their parents feel as if they’re lacking in school, then I put them on a probation period, where they got to go to school and they got to bring back a progress report specifically for the Scraper bike team.”

R.B. isn’t these kids’ dad. He’s not a teacher. He doesn’t even get paid to run this group. He’s just a guy who cares whether they have something to do on the weekends.

“Just to see a kid happy and out of trouble,” he says, “It’s a good feeling.”

At the end of the day, the final coats of paint dry while kids work on last-minute repairs. Every Saturday ends the same way.

“We usually all ride together,” R.B. says. “We come as a group we leave as a group. Work as one unit. Take over the streets of Oakland with a positive heart.”

R.B. says they ride in single file, with a leader at the front of the line.

“Most of the time, if I’m not leading, I'm riding sweep in the back of the line,” he says. “I keep a barricade between the kids and the cars.”

As everyone gets ready to leave, a train of neon bikes with bright wheels snakes its way back through the shop, over the tire tubes, and down the alley out onto International Boulevard.

Then, one by one, the bikes take off, down the sidewalk and around the corner. It’s not exactly single file after that. The colorful bikes zig-zag back and forth across all the lanes.

R.B. says the drivers in this neighborhood have started getting used to them. If they see one bright bike, they know to expect a lot more. Riding together. Taking over the streets of Oakland with a positive heart.

This story was originally reported in 2014. 

Since this story was reported, The Scraper Bike Team opened a neighborhood bike repair facility called "The Shed" at the MLK Jr Library. It's open to the public every Saturday between 1 and 3pm. They are also always accepting donated bikes and bike parts. Reggie Burnett is being honored at the American Library Association’s annual conference, today, along with Anthony Propernick from Oakland’s East 81st Avenue Library. The recognition is for the scraper bike program as innovative work that transforms communities.