I am a bicycle commuter. Not one of the cool ones dressed in all black riding a fixed-gear bike, no…one of the guys with the neon and the helmet and the flashing lights. In 2016, rolling through a 3-way intersection at Ames and Broadway in Cambridge, I was pulled over by a police cruiser and received my first ever bicycle moving violation. Naturally, I threw the damn thing away.
Fast forward 6 months. My wife and I are headed north through Ossipee, New Hampshire to visit some friends. Ossipee boasts some of the finest speed traps in New England, with head-snapping speed changes from 55 mph to 35 and back. They got me. Waiting for the officer on the shoulder, I was optimistic about getting off with a warning based on my spotless driving record.
Minutes later, I found myself in the back of an unmarked cop car with my hands cuffed behind my back, confused, frightened, and more than a little angry. I had been arrested for supposedly driving with a suspended license (ridiculous). The arresting officers treated me with the disdain reserved for known criminals and repeat drunk drivers. I was given no information, read no rights, and assumed to be guilty as sin.
This whole situation slowly resolved itself; my unpaid bicycle ticket had surprisingly resulted in revocation of my drivers’ license (news to me!). The officers had a good laugh once they realized my situation, explaining that “most people in Ossipee ride a bicycle BECAUSE they have a suspended license, not the other way around!”. My wife paid my bail. If she hadn’t had 40 dollars cash, I would have spent the night in jail. A month later I had to fight it out in court, representing myself at the last moment when my mother, a bar-certified environmental attorney, panicked at the last minute that “she didn’t have the right shoes for court”. The judge took one look at me (over-privileged white dude) and threw out all the charges.
The anger and powerlessness I felt handcuffed in the back of a cruiser stayed with me, and I still feel my pulse increase a tiny bit around police officers. This is a very small taste of what black and brown America has been experiencing for decades. The presumption of guilt and the resulting fear and distrust of uniformed authority figures can manifest in several ways. Powerlessness can lead to acceptance and hopelessness if minority communities are made to believe that they have fewer rights than their white neighbors. Or it can lead to simmering resentment and rage.
The continued murder of unarmed black and brown men by police officers must stop immediately. The oppressed have moved beyond fear and hopelessness and are taking back their power, DEMANDING their rights. The protests and activism we have witnessed in major cities over the past two weeks has been inspiring. The anger felt in these communities certainly has the potential for violence and destruction. But, for the most part, community leaders and organizers have instead been able to channel this rage into resolve. Things cannot return to the way they were.
Activism, both political and social, is needed. It’s not enough to show up to the polls next fall. Those of us who stand with oppressed black and brown communities need to continue to do so, loudly and publicly. Demilitarization of the police, accountability of individual officers, and a complete overhaul of recruiting and screening practices will result in real lasting change.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” -Desmond Tutu