Urban social movements and the risk of further entrenching social differences.

Re-post of a Facebook rant from early 2015.

Grist recently pushed out another great article that got to the heart of social repercussions of otherwise well intended community-centred activations and movements. It asked pertinent questions around who is this public or community that these movements serve, what positions do they hold, what do they take for granted and the unintended effects their exclusive practices they may bring about.

But the bike registry program did have one noteworthy effect: It gave Ft. Lauderdale police the perfect excuse to start pulling over cyclists the same way that they did drivers — to check their registration. If the bike was unregistered, they could ticket the cyclist and impound the bike…
Almost none of the tickets were handed out in predominantly white neighborhoods, despite the fact that the majority of Fort Lauderdale residents who had actually gone to the effort of registering their bikes were black…
Now it’s clear that “biking while black” is a thing too — and quite possibly has been for a long time. Fort Lauderdale has simply made it visible, because the policy of issuing, checking, and ticketing around bike licenses creates a data set that didn’t exist before and can now be checked from year to year.

A few months ago there was another relevant article about the social-cultural bias that is unfortunately way too prevalent in very well meaning conservation education (http://grist.org/…/conservationists-need-to-get-out-of-the…/), and now this article holds a similar thread of thought around cycling movements.

Similar to the discussion in this earlier environmental activism focused article, while pushing for cycling as a social movement, greener alternative transport, etc may seem like a massive boon; the inspiration, reasoning and action to advocate and activate for these changes may come largely from very specific identity positions with an inherent social-cultural bias. Bias that is so ingrained into our being and identity that it is subconscious, an affect.

The lived experience of broken window styled policing and security that favours profiling and harassing perceived undesirable social elements in cities (i.e. groups who should and could actually benefit the most from genuinely inclusive public and community driven programmes) was most likely a never seriously considered element by those who originally advocated for a cycling registry to get more people on bikes. Why would they? That most likely had never been their experience — their reality — when it comes to experiencing the city on a bicycle.

There may be resonance in other aspects of their lives where they can be attuned and reflexive to experiences of social-cultural marginalisation, but there may also be lots of other aspects where they are not. This may be conservation and cycling for some, but not for others. It’s all positional and subjective; a one-size fits all activation along these lines is fated to inevitably encounter these sorts of issues. Whether they choose to acknowledge these issues is another question.

Thus the irony of the situation detailed in the Grist article is that a movement driven by well-intentioned and enthusiastic individuals (intended to be inclusive and promote a legitimate claim to positive social change) can ultimately reinforce crippling racialised policy.

For marginalised residents it also may put a not so positive spin on cycling movements as something that reinforces racialised social exclusivity rather than be a radical inclusive push that is driven to bash through these barriers. Questions naturally emerge from the grassroots — Black people cycle too, how come when it becomes something evocative and advocated by certain groups it often may ignore, trivialise or marginalise their experience?

This is not an attack on bike movements. This is something we need to seriously consider with all social activism, activations and forming movements for social change. And there are very good groups that do just this. The very DNA of these groups is constantly reformed and reconstituted around the recognition of the ever-shifting, non-static, limits of our lived experiences, knowledge and identity positions. A recognition of the limits that are surfaced and realised when we make claims for society as a whole. This means that there is strength in movements that know that they don’t know; movements that thrive on embracing difference and the unknown before they make an irreversible leap.

Without the caution that introspection and reflexive driven reflection can provide, we’re doomed to just keep unconsciously retracing the same lines of racialised, gender-imbalanced, class-divided power imbalances over and over. What we perceive as social change may not be the inclusive discourse needed in the identity-riddled daily social, political and economic struggles and strategies for communities and publics. Publics that are present beyond our limited realm of knowing, thinking, feeling and doing.

As the publication concluded in their year in review:
“If 2014 taught us one thing, it’s that, while cities hold tremendous promise as the source and drivers of climate solutions, unless and until we deal with underlying injustice and inequity, they will never realize that potential.”