Fifteen thousand bicyclists converged on Gracie Mansion this July, protesting police brutality and racism and calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to reform or disband the NYPD.
The number of participants on each trek continues to grow.
Their shirts soaked in sweat, protesters biked in 90-degree heat from meetup points in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, where they united at the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Although the participants were encouraged to wear blue to symbolize the water that connects cultures, most didn’t know where they were headed until the end of the ride. Despite that they stopped traffic and halted business-as-usual the entire way there.
“We figured, ‘You guys pull up to our neighborhoods and bother us all the time. We’ll pull up to your crib and bother you a little bit,’” said Orlando Hamilton, co-founder of Street Riders NYC, a weekly, roving Black Lives Matter protest pedaling through a neighborhood near you.
“In our rides, we have people from all over,” Hamilton added. “It’s not a couple of people complaining in the Bronx or a couple of people complaining in Brownsville. It’s a whole community of people that feel like ‘What the fuck you guys are doing with your system is not working for us.’”
It was Hamilton and fellow Street Riders co-founder Peter Kerre’s seventh bike protest when The Indypendent caught up with them. Riders are regularly met with police cars and helicopters during their rides , and so the organizers wait to tell their 50 or so volunteers the final destination of each ride in order to avoid interference from law enforcement. The number of participants on each trek continues to grow, with their passion for the Black Lives Matter movement turning many from riders into medics, mechanics and traffic blockers.
“Just seeing how many people support the cause and try to make a change, knowing that I want to make a change myself,” said Justin Seaborough, an 18-year-old traffic blocker from Harlem, describing what drives him to take part.
The bike rides are one of many forms Black Lives Matter demonstrations have taken nationwide following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody in May. Through marches, sit-ins, street art, the destruction of monuments and regular pedal protests in New York each Saturday, protesters are calling for an end to systemic racism and for justice for those who died at the hands of law enforcement.
“The ‘get your knee off my neck’ that literally all of America was able to see with George Floyd has been a part of my experience throughout life and a lot of Black people’s experience throughout life in general,” Althea Smith, a Westchester resident said at the July demonstration. “It’s unfortunate for somebody to get killed in broad daylight, for everyone to see that.”
Street Riders NYC has led over 60,000 bikers to date. The rides grew out of the tactic of individual bikers and people on scooters protecting marchers from traffic at other protests.
Hamilton, a laid-off chef who had never been an activist before, and Kerre, a music producer and filmmaker, began to see familiar faces at protests and formed friendships. They exchanged contact information and established themselves with their first cycling protest in June. Now they’re leading the largest collective bike rides in New York City history.
The demonstrations follow in the footsteps (of is it tracks?) of past cycling movements for social justice, such as Critical Mass, which regularly shut down New York City’s traffic arteries in the 1990s and early aughts.
In a way, Critical Mass was propaganda by deed: Demonstrators called for safer streets at a time when the city had few dedicated bike lanes. They were often met with gratuitous brutality from the NYPD. The cyclists also used their mass power to rally in opposition to the Iraq War and denounce the Giuliani-era gentrification around them, among other social causes.
Kerre’s own activism was shaped by his encounters with police brutality while living in Minneapolis and he has been advocating against racist policing for years.
“Living in Minneapolis as a Black person, you’d be hunted by the police,” he said. “Just existing as a Black person, it’s crazy. Police in Minneapolis have been out of control for a while.”
The video of Floyd’s killing brought back painful memories for Hamilton as well. He was a teenager when his friend Elwood White was fatally shot by Deputy Michael Astorga of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in 2012 after showing signs of being mentally unstable, speaking incoherently and attacking people.
“The police killed my homie when I was 15,” he said. “They never even got desk duty or nothing. They stayed on the beat and I ain’t never got over it.” Now he says, “Whenever we are protesting the police, I’m there.”
Street Riders NYC covers its expenses out of pocket and avoids soliciting donations, but that hasn’t stopped supporters from showing their appreciation. Two weeks ago, one found the organizers’ Cash App profiles and shared them online. They’ve been taking in funds since.
Every Thursday they train new volunteers at McCarren Park in Brooklyn and are looking for a more permanent place to store their equipment.
“This is not a trend or the height of the movement,” Kerre said. “There is a lot of stuff that is planned for the future. We are only beginning. We are going all out. We will serve the community the best we can.”
Kerre and Hamiliton plan to continue the demonstrations every Saturday. Keep up with them on Instagram.
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