In June, more than 700 bicyclists participated in a “Silent Bike Ride for Black Lives” to honor lives lost to police brutality and to protest racism. The ride took place less than two weeks after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer and Sha’Teina Grady El was punched by a sheriff’s deputy responding to a shooting in Ypsilanti Township.
Ann Arbor’s cycling community is largely white. The ride’s organizers–Survivors Speak, Bicycle Alliance of Washtenaw, the monthly slow ride “bike-in,” Ypsi Bike Co-op, and the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice–wanted to educate participants on the different experiences black people have on their bikes. “The joy of cycling is not equally distributed and it needs to be,” says Bicycle Alliance cofounder Nate Phipps, “but that’s subject to a lot of different things including the way people with color interact with police and law enforcement. I think that’s a major reason that [cycling] is not a purely joyful experience for people of color.”
Steve Adams, who has been riding in Ann Arbor for decades, says people on the road interact with him differently because he is black–people have thrown beer cans at him, yelled racial slurs as they pass by, and tailed him. In the 1970s, riding with a black friend near Zeeb Rd., he was threatened by a group of young men in a truck. The men cut them off and approached the two cyclists wielding baseball bats and yelling racist obscenities. The situation escalated to the point where his friend–a police officer–eventually had to draw his gun.
The men left, but had the nerve to call the county sheriff to complain that they had been threatened. At the time the sheriff’s department had a reputation for racism, Adams says–and his friend knew how deputies would respond to a call about a black man with a gun. He warned Adams to lay down his bicycle and stand with his hands in the air when they arrived.
His friend placed his gun on the ground and kept his hands in the air, too, holding out his badge for the deputies to examine. Once they confirmed that he was an officer and heard what really happened, they took away the young men in handcuffs. Adams doesn’t know if they were ever prosecuted.
He’s had many negative experiences with cops. Once, he was stopped after running a stop sign when there were no cars around, a common practice among cyclists called the Idaho Stop. “If I had been white, he would not have stopped me,” Adams says. Another time, an officer asked him to prove that he owned the bike he was riding.
Adams has also been dismissed when he has tried to raise awareness about the condition of Ann Arbor’s bike lanes. A city council member once told him he didn’t think black people were interested in bike infrastructure.
In fact, when it comes to infrastructure, poorer and blacker communities are often the most disadvantaged. “A lot of the folks who are really impacted by the infrastructure problems also tend to have less of a voice,” says ride organizer Jade Marks. “The Silent Bike Ride for Black Lives was a multilayered opportunity to reflect on whose voices are being heard, whose voices are being left out, and what we as individuals can do to change that dynamic.”
For Survivors Speak founder Trische’ Duckworth, the silence of the June demonstration “spoke louder than any words could. With the roll of each tire, it became a reminder that we need to put an end to white silence.”
“Silence can be powerful,” says Bicycle Alliance board member Katie Honoway, “and this was just as much a funeral procession as it was a protest.”
The Silent Bike Ride for Black Lives marked an important milestone, but organizers say it was just the start of a long-overdue conversation about the injustices black people face both on and off their bikes. “I think that the cycling community in Ann Arbor and the smaller advocacy group that the Bicycle Alliance of Washtenaw seeks to embrace has a lot of thinking to do but also a lot of acting to do,” says Phipps. “If we don’t come out of this different, then we’ve failed.”
The ride raised $7,280 for the NAACP and Survivors Speak.