Word arrived that this bike ride was happening Friday night. My social calendar being empty as always, and not sitting shiva either, it seemed like a good way to reduce some of my white privilege. I’ve been an ally in a variety of causes ever since I was a baby; my mom took me to civil rights protest in Little Rock, Arkansas and Dallas, Texas. I’ve wanted to be solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but a small number of people hijacked protests with violence, and there has been a disproportionate police response that has put numerous protesters in the hospital. (See my recent post, Nonviolent Justice for George Floyd and Bronna Taylor.) I have not been on a group ride since mandatory stay home orders and social distancing were set up by the health department in mid-March. So while it was risky, I felt that with a mask, staying away six feet or more from others as possible (often not, but most people had masks), and being outdoors, it was worth it. I always am looking for my daily dose of miles and exercise, too. It turned out to be a peaceful and educational night.
After shaking off a short nap in the hot Austin, Texas pre-summer afternoon, I headed the 10 miles downtown to Festival Beach. This is where Thursday Night Social Rides are held. Arriving late, I still was 10 minutes early before the ride actually left. I had learned about the event from Bike Austin and saw several folks from that group, and wore a black t-shirt with their logo. On my way there I passed the police station and found some streets were blocked off to accommodate a few hundred protesters. Cops were no longer in riot gear but had boarded up their windows.
As the sun began to set the ride began, heading near the shores of Town Lake, through the bar district, then to Congress Avenue. Hundreds and hundreds of citizens were walking, covering the street curb to curb. I estimate 2,000 people. Many of the chants were not aggressive, but some were (FTP being one I didn’t think was productive). Armed riot police were spotted on a number of side streets, behind barricades at the Governor’s Mansion, just waiting to be called in to suppress the protests. The ride got split up as we stopped and watch the stream of people marching in the honor of victims of police murder, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who sadly would have been 27 on this day.
After the throngs had passed us, the mass of bodies gathered in the middle of the street in front of the state Capitol. Access is barred and backed by state riot police. It was an LGBTQI protest, so speakers talked about how ALL Black Lives mattered, including trans people. The mostly under-30, 66% masked crowd held signs and chanted and cheered. Drones hovered overhead; I don’t know if they were news or police or both. The overreaction by Austin Police that put several people in the hospital with less than lethal bean bag wounds had been highly publicized. There weren’t any protesters throwing things, either. So it was angry, but peaceful, thankfully.
The ride commenced again visited a number of Black history sites, some familiar, some not:
- The “important” people’s cemetery. The organizer pointed out that no black person had been buried there until the 1950’s. One of them was U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, a firebrand if there ever was one, who took Pres. Richard Nixon to task and wouldn’t back down, either. The airport is named after here and there is a statue of her there as well as a street named for her.
- The poor people’s cemetery, which houses people of color, Jews, and others.
- The Juneteenth Memorial behind the George Washington Carver library and museum (itself an important place and collection of history). It reminds us that news of the end of the U.S. Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation took another few years to reach Texas. I never knew it was hidden there; it was because one of the statues resembled a current Texas Senator.
One place stood out to me as a reminder that the Civil War and end of slavery was really not that long ago. A plaque at an east Austin Methodist Church talked about the lynching of two black men and a nurse in 1894. For decades, just the accusation by white people was enough to land people of color in jail. In this case, a white family’s baby died while under the care of a black nurse. She was blamed and was jailed with two men who were there for unclear reasons. A white mob abducted them from jail, staked them to the ground, and shot them to death. Their names, location, were never released, but they were most likely innocent. This terrible history still resonates today. This is just one horrible example of many racist acts in Texas.
The bike ride continued, stopped for a rest, and then bike back from East Austin to join the protest at police headquarters. I talked with a reporter, saw a photojournalist I know, and talked in Spanish with Miguel, a reporter for a collective in Mexico, Noticias de Abajo. He needed some air in a tire, and I was happy to help with my pump. After a short time, I trekked home, tired but glad I participated. Hopefully I don’t turn up sick. But isn’t racism like a sickness of society, and all of us are infected or affected in one way or another?
I’ve never been on a protest bike ride, but it was a good idea, and somber yet fun. Occasionally the leader would use the megaphone to call out a chant. That was hard to do while biking with a mask. But it was gratifying when people we passed would clap for us. Chants included:
- Say his name! George Floyd!
- Say her name! Breonna Taylor!
- No justice, no peace!
- Breonna Taylor, presente en la lucha!
- George Floyd, presente en la lucha!
- Black Lives Matter!
Protests will continue, and it’s not just about the police. It’s about systemic racism that the coronavirus and lockdowns have exacerbated institutional and structural inequities. The entire criminal justice system continues to be unfair as are conditions of capitalism that create the cycle of poverty. Black, brown and other people of color still lack equal access to jobs, education, housing, and food.
In a way, I see this movement as a continuation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for freedom, and specifically the Poor People’s Campaign. The American dream is a nightmare for many people of color not to mention poor whites. We should not still have to be protesting for universal fairness and human dignity in 2020, but we do. I’ll try to be part of it as life allows. Hopefully it will be nonviolent. If not, I fear there will be more clashes with police, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Meanwhile, there’s just me and my bicycle, and there’s nothing vicious about riding a bike.
“Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.”Martin Luther King, Jr.
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