As we passed the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I couldn’t help but wonder if Black Lives still matter to people who bike and the bicycle industry. Last year, I saw all sectors of our cycling world splash social media with images of Floyd’s face, black boxes, and hashtags, as they desperately tried to pander to my beautiful Black existence.
These companies, clubs, and advocates pledged to change their normal course of business, be more inclusive, and center the experiences of Black people who bike. As I as saw these promises stacking up, I wondered what would happen in the bicycling world.
In October, not quite a half year since Floyd’s death, the first hints of a change in bicycling came as the summer’s pandemic-induced bicycling boom continued to grow. Bicycle advocates saw a moment to make their work more impactful and help new converts to bicycling understand the importance of advocacy for safe streets. What remained unclear is whether this shift would center race.
Within this context of change and uncertainty Bicycling published an article titled “How Bike Advocates Are Eyeing Safer Streets for All.” The article’s headline indicated that this moment in history caused bike advocates to change and start focusing on seeking traffic solutions that did not involve police. In response to a tweet about the article I shared the following:
I wish the headline was changing WHITE bike advocacy. Because while folks are jumping on now, many of us been out and some of the same orgs saying stuff the loudest now were trying to push us to the margins then... https://t.co/bRb3CYDOoz
— Tamika Butler (@TamikaButler) October 29, 2020
I hoped my message was clear. The headline should have noted that this shift toward advocating for safe streets without policing and enforcement was only new to white bike advocates. I have written before that my journey as a bike advocate has been full of ridicule, bullying, and harm because I—like many other advocates of color—dared to mention that safe streets should not be at the expense of Black lives. By acknowledging the reality, my reality, of being Black in America and what that means for my safety on streets, I was marginalized and cast aside as someone who was not a good advocate and did not care about bikes, cyclists, or safe streets.
Now, a full year after Floyd’s death, I sit and ponder what this shift away from policing for safer streets has truly meant. I still awaken in the night to the sound of Floyd gasping for breath with a green bike lane visible in the background of the video bravely taken by Darnella Frazier—or is it my son gasping for breath as he proudly beams at how fast he just went up the big hill on his yellow Strider balance bike. In my dreams I see Black people I know and those I do not struggling and loving and crying and laughing.
For Black folks, the line between our pain, harm, and demise, and our joy, pleasure, and triumphs is often blurred. It’s a fact that, for too long, white bicycle advocates have been unable to comprehend. Whether it’s driving, jaywalking, or bicycling, being a person of color in this country means you’re more likely to be stopped, ticketed, and even killed. Advocates used to scream, “but we’re all vulnerable on bikes!” That fact has never been disputed by bicycle advocates of color.
We ride bikes, we get how dangerous this can be. Yet, white advocates didn’t realize that the color of someone’s skin meant that they were more likely not to be seen by a driver while at the very same time exponentially more visible to police. For bicycle advocates of color, especially Black advocates, the goal was never to make streets safe-er. Instead, we are fighting for the same baseline level of safety that white cyclists enjoy.
We worry about being doored or hit by a careless and distracted driver just like all cyclists. But we also carry the burden of knowing that our risks are amplified because we can’t ride around with the protection of whiteness. We too want the experience of riding our bikes without worrying whether people think they look too expensive for us to own, or living in a neighborhood that isn't deemed too poor or too Black to deserve infrastructure.
Asking for and advocating for bicycling solutions that did not involve police or enforcement was not new to us in 2020. Our life experiences always told us what some were just beginning to realize; that, as Marco Conner DiAquoi, deputy director at New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, told Bicycling last fall, many long-supported policies, such as stricter traffic-violation enforcement “aren’t equitable and are overly reliant on police traffic enforcement,” which too often lead to tragic consequences.
Policing and the question of whether it can be reformed or must be abolished is still causing division from Congress to local city halls. Yet, as I hop on my bike, I still wonder where bike advocates and other members of the bicycling industry stand. Did 2020 forever change how we view racism, biking, and solutions to safe streets? Does my life matter as much as that of a white person riding a bike? If so, what has changed? What will change?
All I know is I want things to be different than they were. I want white advocates to listen to us. I do not want someone else to have to die and trend for any more shifts or epiphanies. We need safe streets for all people. And that means looking beyond policing and enforcement. We need to listen to the people who are often on the frontlines of those “tragic consequences,” and invest in solutions created by them. I hope advocates learned that in 2020 and apply it moving forward. I have spent the last year just trying to catch my breath, so for my sake and my son’s sake, I hope advocates keep shifting, keep pushing, and keep listening.
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