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Biking While Black

In 2010, Richmond, California got lucky when Brooklyn born Najari Smith planted roots in the Bay Area city, quickly claiming a very important role in his new community. Having given more than 1,100 bikes to Richmond’s youth and community members in the last 6 years, Najari’s vision and mission to promote a bike-centric lifestyle has been undeniably successful. He is the founder of Rich City Rides, a Bay Area bike advocacy organization, cooperative worker-owned shop, club, and community hub. And it is Najari’s commitment to combating displacement and eradicating poverty while empowering members of his community using the bicycle as the vehicle to do so that landed him in jail on August 3rd.

Oakland PD arrested Najari during the Black Unity Ride that honored Nia Wilson who was murdered on July 22 on the platform of the MacArthur BART station. Coinciding with First Friday, Oakland’s largest monthly street festival, Najari led a group of cyclists from three organizations (Rich City Rides, Red Bike and Green, and the Scraper Bike team) in a peaceful slow roll paying homage to Ms.Wilson while celebrating the resilience, hope, and strength of a community that’s historically suffered unspeakable injustices just for being…black.

While still on his bicycle, towing a small trailer carrying a speaker used to play music during the community rides he leads (and he’s led over 300 of them on Sunday mornings), Najari was stopped by an Oakland Police Officer and cited for violation of Vehicle Code 27007 (noise amplification). The officer aggressively grabbed Najari’s handlebars and told him to dismount his bike and escort him to the police vehicle. After cooperating with the officer and providing 2 forms of identification, Najari was handcuffed, put in the back of the police vehicle, and taken to the station. His bicycle, trailer, and speaker were impounded (and collected 4 days later in damaged condition) and Najari was transferred to Santa Rita where he was forced to remove his clothes, put on the orange jumpsuit, and detained for 2 nights in a holding cell as if he were a danger to society; as if he were a criminal.

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Even if there weren’t several other sources of “amplified noise” at First Friday (loud music coming from several other bikes and cars), Vehicle code 27007 allows exceptions for “political and other special events.”  Does a Black Unity Ride Against Racism to heighten the awareness of the murder of an African American woman less than a month before not qualify as both a political and special event? Oakland PD ignored the political exception, misplaced the law, and escalated the situation by arresting Mr. Smith. But the community ride during which Najari was arrested has been occurring for 10 years, always ending at First Friday. So it’s NOT ironic that Najari was unlawfully targeted and grossly mistreated on this particular occasion. His arrest was a deliberate and egregious misuse of power meant to instill fear in the people the Oakland PD are sworn in to protect.

Mayor of Richmond, Tom Butt, spoke with me this past weekend about Najari’s arrest and his countless contributions to the city he calls home. “Najari is a respected and loved pillar in the community and this would not have happened in Richmond,” the Mayor said. “Our police department does not conduct itself that way. There are things about [Naj’s] arrest that don’t add up and the inconsistencies definitely suggest a racial bias.” Najari confirmed Mayor Butt’s sentiments telling me, “My experiences with the Richmond PD are very different [than they are in Oakland]… Officers roll down their windows to say hi and wave when we ride by. They are friendly and I haven’t had a problem with them before. Sometimes they ask that we move closer to the right side of the street, but that’s a request made with the safety of the riders in mind.”

The District Attorney’s office has been quoted saying they plan to drop the criminal charges against Mr.Smith (Section 148, Resisting Arrest and Obstructing a Peace Officer), however Najari is preparing for his mandatory court appearance tomorrow, Friday August 31, in hopes that the Oakland PD will also dismiss the Noise Amplification citation, clearing his record of any blemish.

As deeply offensive and infuriating as Najari’s arrest has been, is the Bay Area community really shocked or surprised? A more than 2 decade long chronicle of illegal, racially biased, terrorizing behavior directed towards the black community on the part of the Oakland Police Department speaks volumes for the challenges and hurdles Najari faces. Yet his path is one of peace and his use of the bicycle to make significant civic contributions is deserving of national recognition and gratitude. His commitment to saving the most vulnerable members of his community and the places around him through acts of service and mentorship are a testament to his unwavering humanity. Najari Smith is a custodian of hope.

When I spoke to him last night, Najari shared a few reasons why a life on two wheels is so meaningful to him. I could hear a smile in his voice when he told me, “I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. Biking is a mode of transportation and bikes have been healing for me. The things I love about cycling are …. bringing people together from different neighborhoods, working with kids; giving them something to do. ‘Cause if we don’t give them something to do they’ll find something on their own. Bikes have been the vehicle to build 3 different parks in Richmond, and soon every part of Richmond will have a [bike] park; a safe place for people to gather and do something healthy and fun… and we’re doing it together as a community.”

The indignities and injustices suffered by Najari are indicative of a crisis that’s not contained within the Oakland city limits. The violations of his civil rights are racial, socioeconomic, and they are endemic to the non-white communities in our country. Biking while black should be no different than biking while pink, purple, brown, or white. The pursuit of happiness should require no specific shape, size, color, or creed. Our humanity is being threatened and unless we proactively and consistently denounce attacks like the ones suffered by Najari Smith at the hands of the Oakland Police Department, we are contributing to a culture that promotes ignorance, cowardice, and hate. Bike Law and I believe in inclusivity and LOVE.

Below is a link to two petitions I urge you all to sign. The first encourages the DA and Oakland PD to drop all charges against Najari Smith. The second is to assist Najari and Rich City Rides as they respond to the need for preserving public access and non-privatized use of the Point Molate shoreline. The proposal is for the creation of the Major Taylor Bike Park and Velodrome. This public park would link to the Bay Trail, stewarded by the East Regional Park District, featuring a velodrome for regional and competitive cycling and training. This is my call to action. Here is a way you can affect change. https://www.richcityrides.org/petitions-update

Together, we ride safe, happy, often, and proud.

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