Wednesday, February 23, 2011

LA Weekly “Bikeroots:" Co-optation in the Making?

Although it may not have been intentional, one wonders why Hillel Aron, and his LA Weekly article's photos, focused on four professional white males. It's easy to summarize history by simply pointing to specific people, but it is often wrong and usually incomplete. The truth about the grass roots bicycling movement in Los Angeles is that it arises from the progress of the city's historically disenfranchised people (of color, women, in the queer community, immigrants, working class, youth, non-English speakers, etc).*

Through a combination of omissions and generalizations--especially those about the Bicycle Kitchen, LACBC, and Midnight Ridazzz--the article comes dangerously close to presenting a revisionist undermining of the relationships between these communities and LA bicycling. At best, they add up to shoddy journalism, and at worst, they carry a whiff of co-optation by straight white male upper-middle class men.

The article frames the Bicycle Kitchen as a place that facilitated transformation of bicycling from a "DIY, anticapitalist hobby" to a fashion statement replete with iPhones and tight pants. This is a preposterous suggestion. Although bicycling has gained a fashion footnote in mainstream media, the Bicycle Kitchen has never aimed to move it there. On the contrary, the space thrives because it collects the diverse outsider perspectives of its volunteers. While hipsters do use the space, so do homeless people, kids from the largely Latino neighborhood (who can't afford iPhones), and immigrant day-laborers, among others. This departure from the mainstream--not the push towards it--is exemplified in the regular Monday night shift "Bicycle Bitchen," which creates a safe space for women and transgendered people within bicycling.

The article repeatedly misacronyms LACBC as "LA Bicycle Coalition" instead of the LA County Bicycle Coalition. It also reduces the organization's accomplishments to its impact on the Sunset and Venice bicycle lanes and Metro bus racks. If a person glanced at the LACBC's body of work, they would find numerous other projects that have steadily improved bicycling in Los Angeles, including the recent installation of sharrows on Fountain Ave and the continuing City of Lights outreach program.

Most significantly, as a blanket organization, LACBC reaches across the spectrum within the bicycling community, from weekend warrior roadies, to immigrant commuters. The LACBC is not the apex of bicycling advocacy--nor does it claim to be. It faces its own set of challenges and barriers, and exclusionary rhetoric from other advocates that describes its work as ineffective or tertiary is wrong, destructive and counterproductive. Additionally, failure to properly credit the group neglects the efforts of a largely female staff, including planners, community coordinators, and executive directors.

While the article only praises LACBC's origins, it ignores the origin of Midnight Ridazzz, limiting its discussion to later stages, involving the growing hipster participation, clashes with the police, and irritation of drivers. The unacknowledged roots began with women planning rides with friends to explore the city. The early agenda didn’t include creation of a trendy scene, or confrontation with drivers and police. As in its treatment of LACBC, the article limits its attention to a male-dominated back story.

Unquestionably, Ron Milam, Joe Linton, Alex Thompson and Stephen Box have a place in LA Bicycling. And I applaud Box's gusto in running for office. Contending for an elected position in a city as fractioned as Los Angeles is a financially, physically and emotionally draining process. That said, the article's problematically flawed oversimplification of the city's grass roots bicycling movement wrongfully couples Box's campaign to the state of bicycling. His win or loss, however defined, is by no means representative of the feelings for, against, or within, the bicycling community. Life is delightfully complicated as is Los Angeles bicycle culture. Stories about us should illuminate that, not simplify and deaden it.

* Personally, I believe these communities may be predisposed to bicycling in a place where it isn't deemed normal because they already recognize the need to manifest radical solutions in the face of oppressive systems that perpetuate themselves (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism), not unlike LA's driving culture.

26 comments:

marks moody said...

thank you.
love,
ramona

VK said...

Thank you for laying out the points so clearly and eloquently without putting people down. Best, vicki

david said...

it was lazy journalism. these guys are all very accessible in person, and online.

i could've written this article after five minutes of google and 30 minutes on the phone.

Alex Thompson said...

1) Apart from a title - Bike Roots - that was likely coined by the editor, not Aron, did the article claim to be comprehensive?

2) Did you contact Aron for comment before writing this?

3) "they carry a whiff of co-optation by straight white male upper-middle class men. "

Who died and gave you access to my tax returns, or those of Stephen, or those of Joe?

While we're piling it on, let's not just call it straight, white males. Let's call them (me) straight, white, over 30, taller than 72 inches, dark haired, prolific bloggers, not racist, not sexist, outspoken, heavier than 160 lbs, Gmail using, geared bike riding, drop bars fans, male cyclists.

I mean, any way you can possibly pigeonhole Stephen, Joe and I, I really welcome it, because we all know that straight white males only represent white males, and cannot advocate for the interests of anyone who is not straight, or not white, or not male.

adrian L said...

alex,

1) i don't care if the article is comprehensive. although the line it traces from beginning to present curiously avoids the histories i've provided above, my concern is with its claim that box's campaign is representative of cyclists. the closing reads "if [box] does well...it will herald the arrival of a new grassroots movement..." that's wrong. box doesn't represent bicyclists; he only represents himself.

2) i didn't contact aron before writing this, and i'm not interested in parsing the responsibilities between writer and editor. LA Weekly cover articles should be susceptible to scrutinizing comment from the general public.

3) i didn't need access to your tax returns. we went to UCLA together while you were finishing your PhD in math. remember? you took part in the bike-to-campus activities i organized, like the time we watched Breaking Away on the top of the SPA building. we used to meet up with Dorothy, Kelson, and Morgan (before his accident) and do west side rides. that was before you started bikeside or the bikrowave. but i'll stop there, before i fall into a trap in which you seem to be stuck, by saying that MY POST ISN'T ABOUT YOU.

interestingly, only a couple comments before yours, VK pointed out that my writing doesn't put people down. i have in no way pigeonholed ron, stephen, joe, or you. nor do i think that privileged people are incapable of helping people without the same privilege. on the contrary, as a straight upper middle class man, myself, i feel that Activism is largely about learning to use our privilege for progress and unlearning bad habits that perpetuate injustice--like sowing seeds of discord amongst allies or channeling passion into anger rather than love.

Alex Thompson said...

Adrian,

If you've got an axe to grind with Stephen Box, maybe it's best to disentangle that from your analysis of the LA Weekly article, so your motivations are clear. You can't honestly say that Box doesn't represent many cyclists - as someone working his ass off organizing Box's phonebanks, I can tell you that many people, cyclists and non-cyclists, are happy to have him represent them, myself included. Morovere, if you want to get into close reading, then you ought to note that if Box gets elected councilman, he'll represent the 270,000 residents of CD4, cyclists included.

You say you're not interested in differentiating between Aron and the editor's responsibilities, but you open your article by laying the blame on Aron's shoulders - not consistent.

You're waffling on what you're upset about. Your article doesn't make mention of Box till paragraph 6, and yet now you're claiming that your concern is how it represents him as central to the movement? Which is it Adrian - is this article a complaint about Box in disguise - in which case let's talk about your history working for Alta and that conflict of interest - or if not, what is it about? I think your article is about how you think the storyline isn't complete, I didn't take it to be about Box. However, if your point is that the storyline is not complete then I must agree - yes, it is not complete, and no one outside of the bike community that I've spoken w/ has thought otherwise - they've just said 'nice photo, good quotes' and moved on.

Only bike community folks want a 5000 word article to somehow touch on everything that every happened in the bike activism movement in LA. Honestly - no one wants to read that, and LA Weekly wouldn't publish it - it would take 30,000 words if written in the same depth and it would read like an encyclopedia. What LACBC & CicLAvia & MRidazz need are separate pieces that take them as focus. And in fact each of these entities has had such articles, and no one expected those articles to be comprehensive, so why the expectation now?

Don't think that because you went on a ride with me once you can speculate about my upbringing or my family's income or my income today. You need to pull back from that bullshit - you have no right to comment on that.

The lesson to be learned here is that no one article is going to fully or even mostly characterize LA's bike movement - and that's a good thing. It's a sign of it's breadth and depth that it can't be done. Even a book would struggle from issues of voice and perspective. People need to get out and work to get press for their activities in bike activism and don't expect to be covered everytime - I know I don't always get the call and although that's sometimes frustrating, I swallow that pill.

This article is about me, Adrian, because I work with Stephen Box. That means that whenever someone wants to write about the things that Stephen and I do together, which are substantial, there will be two strikes against it because it will have two leading characters who are white males. If we're going to use the most simplistic measures of diversity and insist that the characters in each article be perfect in it's demographic balanced like some sort of primetime sit com INSTEAD OF simply telling the stories - plural - of the bike movement, we're going to get 2nd rate coverage.

silentmovement said...

This quote is by the L.A. Weekly: ""I'm working for free, and I'm spending my time cleaning up work that [the coalition] do while they're on the clock." - Alex Thompson

When I read this section of the Weekly I felt as if you, Alex, did not keep in mind all of the wonderful people who volunteer for LACBC. I have been volunteering with the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition for about 2 1/2 yrs, specifically, with the City of Lights program. We have taught safety and cyclists' rights to over 200+ cyclists, empowered low-income Latino cyclists through advocacy, helped bring more bicycle racks in the Pico-Union/Westlake community, created a Spanish resource guide for Spanish speaking cyclists, ensured that low-income areas of Los Angeles get prioritized when implementing the L.A. bike plan, and a host of other important issues that affect our communities. In addition to the work we do at City of Lights LACBC has done great work in the past and continues to do so. For more info check out our page: http://la-bike.org/current_projects/current_projects.html#g10 This was mostly due to volunteers who believe in our program and what we do. I believe that we all can be more respectful of one another and of the work that we do. Each of our organizations has done and/or is working to better the conditions of cyclists in Los Angeles. I think that we can shake L.A. and make it better if we work with one another rather than simply critique each others work. We are all wanting to reach the same goals perhaps differently but that does not give anyone the right to make negative comments about anyone's organizations like the quote I posted above. By the way, my name is Andy Rodriguez and I'm proud to be a LACBC volunteer.

silentmovement said...

Check-out the wonderful work we are doing on Main and 18th in Downtown Los Angeles with the Bicidigna program. This program would have not been possible without the community's effort, IDEPSCA, and volunteers. Check out the blog: http://ciudaddeluces.wordpress.com/la-bici-digna-bike-repair-space/

adrian L said...

alex,

I think I've made it pretty clear: the article is flawed in it's positioning of Box's campaign as a culmination of the LA bicycling movement. The evidence it supplies to support this falsehood is especially problematic because it presents a history of the movement through vignettes of smaller activities fraught with significant omissions and oversimplifications. Taken together, these transgressions create a borderline revisionist narrative that neglects the contributions of disenfranchised communities.

I don't care to parse responsibilities in the LA Weekly newsroom. That means I hold Aron and his editors, or whomever else is involved, responsible. Since journalists are the face of their articles, I named him. Such is the role of a by-line.

You are right that if elected, Box will represent his constituents. But he is in no way representative of the bicycling movement. He may have bicycling in mind for his platform and political agenda, but that does not automatically designate him as a figurehead for our collective efforts. I have not followed his campaign closely, but if he is claiming a crown and sceptre, he should stop. I've addressed this type of behavior previously .

At no point do I suggest that every news article represent every bicyclist's story in all of Los Angeles. If anything, I've repeatedly argued that our sheer diversity gives us awesome strength. This implies that a wealth of stories can be found in looking at smaller cross sections within the movement. In the context of the Box campaign, alone, I would've greatly enjoyed an article that examines his personal motivations, or his campaign supporters, or what his opponents think about his platform, or what other bicyclists think of him. As the article stands, despite the fact that their efforts are basically described as predecessors to Box's campaign, I have no inkling what Ron, Joe, Jimmy, Dan, Jen, or even you, think about the candidate.

Lastly, you bring up my former employment at Alta Planning and you reference some sort of conflict of interest. I don't have the foggiest notion what you think "conflict of interest" means. From other posts you put on the web, I'm guessing it has something to do with the fact that I got paid to improve bicycling in Los Angeles.

Andy also commented on your tireless refrain regarding how you receive no financial reward for your efforts. As he illustrates, plenty of other people similarly donate their time and energy to advance the cause. I want you to know that I really appreciate how you give so much for so little in return. Without the charity of volunteers like yourself, the LA bicycling movement could easily cease to exist.

That said, I think it's also wrong to question someone's personal opinion about something simply because they get paid to do it. People often need to make money in order to provide for themselves and their families. If they can align their personal passions with their financial needs, all the better. It is wrong to criticize people solely on the condition of their payment. A world in which all people could work freely following their heart's desires, without regard to financial well-being, is a beautiful vision. But our world is not their yet. Anyone with the luxury to pursue such a path would hopefully have sympathy for those who can't.

examinedspoke said...

"The truth about the grass roots bicycling movement in Los Angeles is that it arises from the progress of the city's historically disenfranchised people."

While probably true, this interpretation would ignore the contributions of the L.A. Wheelmen (dating at least to 1945), Velo Club LaGrange (1969), the "bike renaissance" of the 1970s, and the individual contributions of enthusiasts over the years. Too, it has been my experience that people who cycle because of poverty or disenfranchisement stop when they are no longer poor or disenfranchised. Enthusiasts, whether rich or poor, continue despite their economic or social condition.

adrian L said...

examinedspoke,
most definitely good points. bicycling clubs and enthusiasts have been instrumental in providing a historical continuity to los angeles bicycle culture from WAYYY back.

by "disenfranchised," i didn't only mean poor people. i also meant other groups who struggle through institutional oppression. so, enthusiast and disenfranchised are not mutually exclusive. being a person of color, or female, or queer, or immigrant, or poor, does not exclude a person from simultaneously being a bicycle enthusiast.

examinedspoke said...

"i also meant other groups who struggle through institutional oppression. so, enthusiast and disenfranchised are not mutually exclusive."

Yes, I agree.

I think your strongest argument is that the poor have been cyclists longer than the events mentioned in the L.A. Weekly article. Their economic conditions force them into it. But I'm not sure how effective they've been as political agitators. In my experience, they mostly stop cycling when they climb out of poverty.

I'm also not entirely clear how the other disenfranchised groups you mention settled on cycling as a political cause. I welcome their influence, too, but I wonder whether it's a "cause du jour," to be abandoned when the next one comes along. Skateboarding and flag burning had their day in previous years, but they're pretty much finished now.

We have much to do to make cycling better, and we need long-term (40+ years) political pressure to make it happen. I'm hoping that everyone continues cycling long after the reasons they came to it cease.

Evan said...

What is the history of the queer community in helping to improve cycling in LA? Queers have been mentioned a few times in the post and in the comments, without any further explanation that I could find.

rickrise said...

Indeed, one of the problems with the Bikeside approach, which stephen Box unfortunately shares to some extent, is its enthusiasm for ad hominen attacks and the use of anger as a diversionary tactic in argument. Adrian L. wrote about an article; Alex Thompson wrote about Adrian, Box, and himself.

I'm familiar with the situation, as I myself wrote an article about the LA bicycle advocacy scene for Momentum Magazine, in which I made an effort to include the full breadth of participants therein. I had only 2,000 words to do it it; as Alex corresctly notes, you can't encompass the LA scene in an article that short. However, you can include a much more diverse selection of players than Mr.Aron did. Even the longer version I published in Bicycle Fixation couldn't cover it all. But careful journalism tries to show a broad sampling of the subject in a survey article. The criticism of the Aron's article was justified.

What puzzles me is why Alex is so hungry to attack Adrian for criticizing an article that the majority of bike activists of all stripes that I've discussed it with feel was careless and inadequate, and why he feels it necessary to attack Adrian so personally, when Adrian's criticism of the article was in no way an attack on Box or Alex.

Aron's article was facile, underresearched, and sloppy. Simply to say so, and show why, is not to attack persons mentioned in the article. Why so defensive then?

ubrayj02 said...

I'd just like to add that my feelings were a little bit hurt that a lot of people in the bike scene that have worked very hard were not mentioned in this article.

The focus on the article was clearly a back-handed endorsement for Stephen Box (someone I support in his bid for council), but wasn't that great of an article regarding the larger bike scene.

In time, the effects of this article will fade, but it joins a larger cannon of clueless and bombastic LA Weekly articles that stab at the truth, leaving it bleeding on the streets looking for help.

Mark said...

Alex,

If I get your argument in the responses correctly: you're basically trying to convince us that you're straight, right?

dude, just try, please, to sometimes see these things through the lens of a non-white male (whether straight or not).

A simple: "I can see where you're coming from about the article", is all that was needed. Problem solved. But you seem so detached from what seems logical "to you". And you'll argue this for some unknown reason, as if anyone took a direct jab at you.

Well, do your thang, white boy.

Damien Newton said...

Evan,

There's no direct link between the gay rights movement and bike movement that you'll find on google or MSNBC or anything; but a lot of the leaders of the bike movement about 5-10 years ago proudly identify as queer. When I interviewed a group of "Original Midnight Ridazz" that was made clear to me by Ma Bell:

Ma Bell: And another thing, the founding of Ridazz was very queer. The original Ridazz and rides were just…queer. In every meaning of the word.

There's plenty of other examples also.

adrian L said...

Evan - thanks for asking for clarification.
Damien - thanks for answering Evan.

rickrise - i remember that momentum magazine article. it's hard to write comprehensively about something so complex. i think one option is to forego attempts at broad historical summaries in favor of narrowing a story's scope, like examining how a larger idea is channeled into individual behavior. i am really interested in that tipping point where people decide to try riding, and i don't think enough stories have collected testimonials about people's change. actually, i suspect a more interesting question is why people resist it. keep up the good work!

ubrayj02 - i think you are 100% correct in your assessment of the LA Weekly. it's tragic as the only reputed alternative paper of the city. i didn't have any hurt feelings myself. but, i recognize that you have made major contributions, including your blog, ELBO, your store, and your ongoing organizing; people probably don't express their appreciation enough, which can make it hard to keep up the effort, especially with other responsibilities like a family to take care of. the press often misses the real story, but other bicycle advocates know you're work is, has been, continues to be, instrumental. thank you.

Mark - while it's tempting to attribute alex's comments to his whiteness, it would be bereft of me to encourage other people to essentialize him as "white boy," after complaining about oversimplifications.

however, i do think you have a point, similar to the one rickrise rasies, regarding (see how i was angling for the alliterative tense-shifting wordplay?) personal and anger-filled rhetoric in the bicycle community BETWEEN BICYCLISTS. why can't we discuss our differences from a place of love and understanding. LA is a big place. there's enough room for all of us. we should save the personal and angry jabs for our real opponents,
like double-talking councilmen,
unyielding entrenched city staff,
headline-seeking mayors,
asshole drivers,
and trigger-happy brutality-loving police.
when you make a list of people who deserve our bitterness, it's shocking to consider how some people waste so much time and energy spraying other advocates.

Alex Thompson said...

@silentmovement

You gotta take that quote in context. My quote was a direct response to Klausner's quote that preceded it.

I'm aware of the City of Lights program and I think it has a laudable goal and I'm glad people are putting energy into it. That does not mean though that I'm going to gloss over serious and damaging policy failures in other areas.

Keep kicking ass Silent!

AT

Alex Thompson said...

@silentmovement

I also want you to take note - that's my only negative quote re LACBC in the article. I have one other quote which is conciliatory, and the rest of the quotes don't refer to LACBC at all.

Mark said...

I don't think Alex's skin color affects his views. I was just poking fun at our phd brother's relentlessness at a blog entry.

Certain comments lend themselves to make seem a person doesn't really grasp an aspect of how colored folks perceive something like the LA Weekly article.

For one, getting worked up about being called upper-middle class, is really funny. It gives a sense of: I'm tired of people thinking I have money, just because I'm white. Yeah, that's a big problem, but generally it's the colored person that loses out due to that stigma.

Hence, this blog entry seemed to be a similar approach and giving voice to (again) non-white, non-male folks in the bike scene that lose out.

That's all. No biggie, right?

Alex Thompson said...

@Mark

I'm not pissed that he called me upper-middle class. I'm pissed that Adrian speculated about me and others being upper-middle-class, and I'm pissed that he then presented his speculation as fact. You find something else you know Adrian to be lying about and I'll get pissed about that too ;)

adrian L said...

alex,
you may dispute my speculative technique, but if i haven't gotten any facts wrong, don't call me a liar--yet another personal attack from you to another bicycling advocate. if i have gotten something wrong, i hope you can explain it to me civilly, and i will correct it.

Mark,
thanks for bringing up some very interesting ideas about intersecting privileges, which are especially significant to bicycling identity. i hope to expand more on this in another post.

Alex Thompson said...

Adrian,

Your "speculative technique" is called fabrication and it is lying. You admit that you speculated that Box/Linton/myself et al are upper-middle-class. Whether it is true or not, to present speculation as fact is a fabrication and a lie.

Moreover, my income is very modest, and I am nearly at the poverty line, so much so that my mountain of student debt is presently deferred. From what I have seen, both Box and Linton, the straight white males you speculated are upper-middle-class and you also speculated might be co-opting bike activism, have very modest incomes and certainly do not qualify as upper-middle-class.

You've done quite enough to lie about me and insinuate that I see things a particular way because of my race - a personal attack without factual justification. On the other hand, you complain that I am attacking you personally? I certainly am - you lied about me and I don't intend to suffer it. When you take your lies and post them on the internet, it's not exactly an evil personal attack to call you on your falsehoods. If you're going to speculate about people in print, expect to be called on it.

adrian L said...

dr. alex thompson,

i have never suggested that Joe Linton is co-opting bike activism. i am suggesting that the disparate neglectful points and false conclusions in an article threaten to do such a thing.

i have NEVER suggested, EVER, that you think or behave in any particular way because of your race. in a previous comment i DISCOURAGED another commenter from joking in that manner.

for Box, i have only suggested that IF he is claiming to be the culmination of the bike movement, then he should stop.

if i've been mistaken, i apologize. while your income may be modest, and while you may suffer from student loans, i would not classify you, nor Box, nor Linton, as "working class," neither in the common definition, nor in the Marxist definition.

Steven Sweat said...

I think we can all agree that there is great diversity in the cycling community in Los Angeles. Thanks for the post!