Sunday, May 12, 2013

What is a Bike Movement? Here's the Deal with

When I started my anthropology PhD program in September 2007, I planned to study the politics of rock en español. Then my bike and Los Angeles intervened. I didn't like the way motorists treated me when I biked in L.A. I also knew that there was major status displayed in transportation, and that bicycling could be a symptom of just how marginal some people of color were. Something needed to change in L.A.'s street culture, and I wanted to help. But I didn't know how change happened. I started formulating a new dissertation project in spring 2008, when I decided to make becoming a bike activist into an ethnographic project.

For the next three years, I learned about how culture change happens through collaborating on some projects that experimented with bicycling in L.A., most notably CicLAvia and City of Lights/Ciudad de Luces. Then, when I moved away from L.A. to write the dissertation in 2011, I realized that those projects were able to emerge not just because some people had bothered to organize them, but because they built on the human infrastructure created by the L.A. bike movement. People had been fighting for years to show that not only could you bike in L.A., you could have FUN (F.U.N.?). It could be something that made people feel like part of a secret world, it could be something that connected people to the city's history, it could be something that you did in a costume, it could be something that you did with your kid, it could be something that changed your community. At the same time, it could be something you did because you couldn't afford to do what you really wanted, which was drive, or because riding a bike was just what people did back home.*

My dissertation is called "Body-City-Machines: Human Infrastructure for Bicycling in Los Angeles." Dissertation committee-willing, I should be done with that project in about a month. Because I don't really finish projects before I start new ones, I got this idea in my head that there needed to be more documentation of the kind of cumulative effect I experienced in organizing bike projects in L.A. There's a lot of information online about different projects and groups in L.A., on both the culture and advocacy side (any bike nerd who hasn't spent hours on Don Ward's amazing Midnight Ridazz Ride Calendar should go there immediately), but I thought it might be useful to put together a timeline of events people considered important to the development of a bike movement. I also knew that because I'd chosen to make my ethnography about my own trajectory as a bike activist instead of about the history of the L.A. bike movement, there were many things I didn't even know about. I was going to need a lot of help.

I bought the URL as a starting point. Then I put together an event for April 12 at the L.A. Eco-Village that would provide some oral history about the particular thread that I have followed in my own understanding of key elements of the L.A. bike movement:
Critical Mass -> LACBC and Bike Kitchen -> Midnight Ridazz -> Bike culture being more visible -> Bike advocacy being more vocal -> CicLAvia getting sanctioned by the city
That's a huge oversimplification, but that's the basic skeleton I had in mind. I chose April 12 because a lot of people who study things like urban social movements and cycling would be in town for the Association of American Geographers conference, and my Bicicultures collaborators and I had decided to put together our own shadow conference about the relationships between bike research, advocacy, and community.

As soon as I had announced the event, I started getting feedback that I had not invited key people who had insight into the bike movement. My first response to that was like, no shit Sherlock, ain't no way I can include the entire universe of people who have made bike change happen in L.A. in one event. Then I got over myself and started thinking about two important questions: Who counts in a social movement? Who gets credit for culture change?

Who counts in a social movement?
The event I'd put together, "Building a Bike Movement in Autopia," started with a panel of the usual suspects, so to speak: the founders of LACBC and the Bike Kitchen (Ron Milam, Jimmy Lizama, Ben Guzman, Kelly Marie Martin), people who had been around for the early days of Midnight Ridazz (Marisa "MaBell" Bell, Don "Roadblock" Ward), people who have done bike policy work in L.A. (Colin Bogart, Aurisha Smolarski-Waters, Alexis Lantz), and people who are bringing biking from places beyond the Bike Kitchen-Bikerowave-Bike Oven sphere like South L.A. to the forefront of the movement (Tafarai Bayne, George Villanueva, John Jones III). Ron, who was also the facilitator, framed things as an improv-style "yes, and" exercise, where people could interrupt each other after someone had talked for a few minutes to add their perspective. People had a great time talking and listening. There were about 60 people sitting around the ecovillage lobby, and I for one felt electrically charged. Then, with much left to say, we cut it off so we could have time to add events to a group timeline I'd posted around the room.

Jimmy Lizama gets the Chicken Leather treatment. Photo by Lois Arkin.

Facilitator Ron Milam and J. Swift. Photo by Lois Arkin.

The founders of the Bicycle Kitchen. Photo by Lois Arkin.

Ecovillager Lara Morrison and San Francisco artist LisaRuth Elliott. Photo by Lois Arkin.

Colin Bogart and John Jones. Photo by Lois Arkin.

Me and ecovillager/longtime L.A. messenger Randy Metz. Photo by Lois Arkin.

Things got loud! I've posted the updated timeline to, feel free to make suggestions there.

As I circulated and talked with different bike folks I'd never met, I learned that thanks to Sahra Sulaiman at LA Streetsblog, there were some people in attendance I hadn't expected to see that night, like J. Swift of Black Kids on Bikes and Stalin Medina of Watts Cyclery. Then I was bowled over to see Yolanda Davis-Overstreet, the force behind the documentary RIDE: In Living Color, who I'd been starstruck to meet at the National Bike Summit in March. I think, in retrospect, the event I organized on April 12 was more of a performance of the fuzzie-wuzzies people can feel when they're part of a subcultural network than it was an inclusive statement about the bike movement in Los Angeles. I wanted to show a particular community to other bike scholars, and feel a part of it myself again after living away from L.A. for two years. The other side of community belonging, though, is exclusivity. The evening became disorienting for me when I was reminded that the L.A. bike movement seems exclusive and privileged to some people. I felt pretty invisible, as a self-identified woman of color who has been arguing for equity in bike advocacy in L.A. and beyond since 2008. But I also felt like maybe it was an accomplishment that I'd created a moment where a room full of bike advocates would clap enthusiastically when Stalin said that Latinos riding bikes in South and East L.A. should be seen as part of the movement too.

Who counts as part of a bike movement depends on who you're talking to. Not everybody has the means to be part of the conversation, when the people talking are part of a limited circle. Bike advocates who have privileges of race, class, gender, education, social connections may not connect with every cyclist using streets in L.A., but they do speak for them in policy processes. Is it up to a movement and go out and recognize people as participants? Or is it up to like-minded people to find each other? Both? Maybe it makes more sense to talk about a multi-sited movement, where people developed their own communities around bicycling, rather than one cohesive thing to which many people belong. In a city like Los Angeles, where there are huge disparities between what's happening in different parts of the metropolis, it's an open question how much concurrent developments influenced each other.

I'm now thinking about the urban L.A. bike movement as having three threads: culture, advocacy, and usage. The people living these threads cross over between the different categories all the time, although not everyone does. 

The first time I experienced L.A. bike culture was riding in from Long Beach for the second All City Toy Ride in 2007 that met up at Olvera Street. It was a powerful turning point for me because I saw with my own eyes how many people wanted to have fun on bikes in L.A., and I saw them doing it not on the beach, not on some creek trail, but in the historic urban core of this so-called non-city. Based on what I've found from researching and talking to people, I would say that downtown L.A.'s messenger culture can take the credit for starting a social life around bicycling in the central city. Then Critical Mass brought together people who were interested in bike commuting but weren't necessarily part of the messenger culture. After the downtown messengers were no longer the only people socializing around urban cycling, one way to consider the growth of bike culture in L.A. would be linking it to the three oldest bike co-ops: the Bicycle Kitchen (East Hollywood), the Bikerowave (Westside), and the Bike Oven (NELA). A keen observer will note that a lot of the info I have on the timeline as of now is skewed toward the Bike Kitchen's circle of influence, because that's what I was more socially connected with as an ecovillager. I'm especially hoping to hear from folks who have key events in mind associated with the other co-ops, and from co-ops that started after the mid 2000s bike boom.

Ron Milam and Joe Linton had already been working in sustainability advocacy before they came together through Critical Mass in the late 90s. So Ron was ready to listen when Chris Morfas at the California Bicycle Coalition hinted that L.A. needed its own bike coalition. LACBC was founded in 1998. Many cyclists were politically activated by the DNC Critical Mass arrests in 2000 that disproportionately targeted women. Bike blogs, and especially the mobilization around the Bike Writers Collective that Stephen Box instigated, show the growth of political organizing around L.A. cycling after 2007. By the time I showed up in L.A.'s advocacy scene in September 2008, it was gaining speed. Speaking of bike advocacy, Angelenos should fill out Bikeside L.A.'s bike friendliness survey, which is accepting responses till Tuesday.

This refers to the fact that there've been bodies on bicycles getting around L.A. since the first bike boom in the 1890s. Maybe they weren't organizing themselves around urban cycling, like developing styles together or lobbying at City Hall, but their bodies have been out there on the streets whether motorists liked it or not. By 2005, when Dan Koeppel published his "Invisible Riders" article about Latino cyclists in Bicycling, urban bike culture and advocacy in L.A. were flourishing, but without necessarily reaching cyclists beyond subcultural circles. For me, as an activist and a researcher, thinking of bike usage as a component of a bike movement is about radical inclusion. It's about turning around and confronting our movement with its own tendencies to reproduce existing power structures and saying, no, we are going to go out of our way to call attention to the other people who aren't getting the credit for culture change that comes our way more easily. To say that the bodies of jornaleros, or the people biking in Inglewood and Boyle Heights, matter less than the mobs of Ridazz in this street story is to give in, yet again, to the idea that the city belongs to one group over another. The city is ours because we put our bodies on the line to make it what it is. No loft developer can design that into the street, no matter how much green paint they throw down. If we, as a movement, turn our backs on this tendency for human practices like urban cycling to become sites of value for some people and not others, we are the ones being exclusive. We are the ones making those riders invisible. When we don't expect to see cycling in places like Watts, we overlook the organizing going on there, the ways that people are using bikes to empower their communities.

Who gets credit for social change?
As I've been amassing dates, events, and names for the timeline, I've spent a lot of time searching through internet archives and seeing how newspapers like the L.A. Times portrayed alleycats in 2003, when they tagged it as "entertainment," and CicLAvia in 2013 being associated with public health. Talking about a social movement means talking about change, and change happens in ways that are hard to quantify. We decide, afterwards, what was important, what was a turning point. Sometimes we feel the excitement in the moment, and we think, everything will be different after this. Sometimes it's really clear who had an idea, and how that idea had ripple effects beyond an immediate circle. Sometimes people with more privilege, due to gender, education, race, any number of factors, position themselves to be the recipients of credit when there are others behind the scenes that everyone would admit had something to do with making things happen. How do community-based projects get converted into individual credit? There's not always a clear answer to the question, but the people who get named in newspapers, in conversations, in policy documents, travel into new situations where they can have an impact beyond the people who did not get credit.

It is a well-documented fact that women do not get as much credit for their activism as men do. For example, Lee Sartain's 2007 study of women in Louisiana's NAACP from 1915 to 1945 is called Invisible Activists. Closer to L.A., Mary Pardo's 1998 study called Mexican American Women Activists acknowledged the way that men frequently took the public stage in the Chicano movement. My point here is that who gets "credit" for projects tends to follow lines of power in a given situation. For this reason, I think it's especially important to consider issues like race, class, and gender in determining who counts in something like a bike movement. The timeline I've posted on is an attempt at tracing a chronology of accumulated energy more than it is a catalog of credit. 

Many thanks to all the people who came to the Biking Autopia event, especially Ron Milam who acted as facilitator and Kelly Marie Martin, who gave the timeline a big starting boost. I'm also grateful to the scholars on the Bicicultures listserv who contributed their thoughts to the question of what counts as participation in a bike movement, to Ben O'Donnell for coding the timeline, and most of all to Sarah McCullough, who brought the idea of an archive to my mind and who continues to be an invaluable collaborator.

*Note: I've never investigated the roadie or mountain bike cultures in L.A. I know there's definitely crossover between the urban bike movement and those social networks, but I'm not the person documenting them.