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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Calls for change after arrest of man “biking while black”

Holly J. McDede
Cycling advocate Najari Smith at a “Biking While Black” rally in Downtown Oakland.";s:

In Oakland, black cyclists are more than six times as likely than white cyclists to be pulled over by cops. Last month, Najari Smith, a Richmond-based community organizer, was arrested by Oakland police while biking and playing loud music. Now, cycling groups around the Bay Area are pushing for change.At a rally earlier this month, some four dozen cyclists gather outside the Alameda County courthouse in Downtown Oakland. Reginald Burnette came with a sound system on the back of his tricked out tricycle.

“What’s better than music and bicycles? They go together,” he says.

Artist Daud Abdullah brought a military helmet with him that he turned into a mosaic art piece. The words on the helmet say ‘Police Protect Serve’ and ‘Black Lives Matter.’

“I wanted it to be beautiful on the outside,” he says. “I didn’t want it to come across in any evil way.”

Cycling activist Duane Deterville steps up to the megaphone.

“What is being policed is black existence, that's all people are doing, that's what Najari was doing, existing at a particular time, and expressing at a particular time,” Deterville says.

Najari Smith gets up in front of the crowd, wearing a black visor that says “Local Hip Hop Empowers People.” He is the founder and executive director of Rich City Rides, a community cycling organization and bike shop.

“No more policing of black expression,” Smith says.

The group's mission is to empower marginalized groups through bicycles. Rich City Rides, among other things, teaches kids and adults how to build bikes, fix bikes, and ride safely.

An interrupted healing circle  

Growing up, Smith wanted to draw cartoons. Now, he says, his bike is his paintbrush. The streets are his canvas. He regularly leads group bicycle rides while a speaker on a trailer attached to his bike pumps out music.

“It’s good advertising. They come out, they dance to the music, they wave, they wish they could be a part of it,’ Smith explains. “And we say, ‘Yes you can, you can be a part of it’”.

It was during a group bike ride last month, at First Fridays in Oakland, that Smith was arrested. At the end of the ride, Smith and the other cyclists formed a circle at an intersection. This was a healing circle to honor Nia Wilson, the black woman who was stabbed to death by a white man on the MacArthur BART platform.
“We were doing our ceremonial circle, on this special ceremony for Nia Wilson, this officer came over and grabbed my handlebars,” Smith says.  

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW News
Daud Abdullah turned a military helmet into a mosaic art piece. He brought it to the “Biking While Black” rally in Downtown Oakland.

Taken into custody

According to Oakland police, the officer tried to cite him for a noise violation and for impeding traffic. Smith says he turned the music down.

“I'm trying to hide the fact that I'm scared, and I'm hoping me and the officer can talk things through, but that didn't happen,” Smith remembers.  

When Smith didn’t immediately provide identification, he was arrested. He was booked into Santa Rita jail for the next two days.

“Bail was set at 5,000 dollars,” Smith says. “I thought of Sandra Bland. I thought of all of the folks who this didn't end well for.”  

Outrage and calls of “biking while black”

Cycling advocates and community organizers were outraged. More than a thousand people signed a petition asking for the charges to be dismissed. Richmond’s mayor wrote a letter to Alameda County’s District Attorney, demanding the same thing.  Days later, charges were dropped. But Smith says this issue is bigger than one cyclist’s arrest. Researchers at Stanford University found that black people make up almost three quarters of people stopped by police while cycling in Oakland.

“I'm not the only person whose been racially profiled, people get racially profiled everyday,” Smith says. “There is something within the system that allows this.”

Cyclists without music

After he got out of jail, Smith went on a weekly self-care bike ride in Richmond with a group of cyclists. He didn’t bring his speaker. The speaker that brings kids and seniors out of their homes to dance. The speaker that got him arrested. Police confiscated that speaker from Smith, and it wasn’t working when they returned it.

Nakari Syon with Rich City Rides,says that without the music, it was like a bike ride on mute.

“People just see the bikes, but they're wondering, how come they're not making no noise?” Syon says.  

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW News
Reginald Burnette turned a cruiser into a sound system.

“The healing has to continue”

After Smith’s arrest, Rich City Rides and other biking organizations called for an end to the disparity in traffic stops. It’s not yet clear how that could happen. But it is clear that black-led bicycle organizations will keep going on healing rides.

“It hurt, but if it takes that moment to create policy change, then so be it,” says Smith.

The cyclists brought their music to this rally. Jams thump from the back of the tricycle. For these cyclists, riding bikes while playing music is how they show they exist, how they reclaim their streets, and how they demand change.

“So look, the only time I see bikers like this is when we're about to do a ride,” a cyclist calls out to the group.

They bike away together, wheels spinning and music pumping, so everyone can know they’re here.