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Biking to work every day was supposed to be a good thing for me to do here in D.C., where coronary disease steals so many years from black men’s lives. This green, compact city with few killer hills should have been a much better place to ride than New York, where I first got hooked on the freedom and strength of self-powered mobility. But while pumping through the grimy terrain of Gotham, I never encountered the casual violence I have run into in the District. Here, feral young brothers routinely act as if I need a license to ride down the street.
The worst experience came in spring 1999, when three brothers terrorized me just for fun right in my own neighborhood. One sunny afternoon, I was pedaling my blue mountain bike east down Newton Street NE to deliver an invitation to my daughter’s birthday party. At the corner of 18th Street, I noticed that an older black man driving a minivan in front of me was hesitating to cross the intersection because there was nowhere to go on the other side. Blocking his way was a blue, early-’80s Ford LTD or Crown Victoria with broken taillights and sagging suspension. It was double-parked, straddling the center line and blocking the traffic in both directions while a passenger seemed to be conducting business with a young woman bending over into the rear window, standing in the oncoming lane. The Ford’s driver just sat there staring down at least four other motorists who were too cowed to blow their horns or tell him to move on. But he couldn’t keep me from passing, so I just glanced inside the car and rode right by.
They caught up to me half a block later.
Grazing my left knee with the right fender, they cut me off and then slowed to a crawl, pinching me so tightly that my front tire was rubbing up against the curb. There were three young black men inside: the driver, a silent front passenger with a dead face and hard stony eyes, and a maniac ricocheting around the back seat. “Bitch!” he cursed at me through the open windows. “Bitch, what do you think you looking at?” He was so agitated I wondered how he could thrash around so wildly in such a small space.
This was not my first encounter with fools in cars. I had chased and caught up with drivers who had messed with me before. But these guys had stalked me so deliberately that I was rattled. My mind didn’t focus on the logical risksthat they might shoot me or knock me onto the sidewalk. Instead, I feared that somehow they would pull me inside the car, which at that moment seemed to me like the mouth of a dark, moving cave.
I had heard that police officers often describe a huge spike in adrenalin during violent confrontations, accompanied by tunnel vision that sharply constricts their ability to see the big picture. Now I understood what they were talking about. The cursing lunatic had trapped part of my attention, and I just couldn’t pull my eyes away from the sight of him raving at me from my left. I had to deliberately tell myself, “Keep pedaling; don’t forget you’re riding a bicycle; keep pedaling or you’ll fall.” On my right side was the bright open space of the John Burroughs Elementary School grounds. I considered grabbing my Kryptonite lock with my left hand, smashing it into the raver’s face, and jumping the bike onto the sidewalk to escape across the grass. But I was too afraid I’d spend the next year worrying that I’d run into these jerks again somewhere near my home, so I just kept pedaling, and the raver kept abusing me.
Finally, I looked over at the driver. Even though I realized he was the person actually forcing me off the road, he was also the only one who appeared even remotely human, so I glanced at him and mumbled, “Uh, uh…I’m cool, man. I’m cool.” I guess it was the humbled response that he was after, because he picked up speed and pulled away. The last thing the raver said to me was: “Go on, bitch.”
For years, D.C. and other African-American communities have consoled themselves with the delusion that black crime is primarily an issue of economics. Yet none of the violence I’ve encountered while riding in the District has had anything to do with money. If the brothers in the Ford had been concerned with a logical enterprise such as, say, selling drugs, then angering a bicyclist who might write down their license plate number or douse them with pepper spray would have been bad for business. Stealing my bicycle might have made sense, but that’s not what they were after. Their real desire was the pleasure of seeing me crash, or cry, or get scared enough to piss on myself. If rape is about not sex but power, then this incident was about not money but dominance. They were three young men in a car; I was just a black bitch on a bike who didn’t know that my proper place was to stop and wait for them to go first.
Looking back, I think that at their subconscious level, there probably was something about seeing me enjoying my bicycle that helped set them off. Unlike cars, which symbolize adult independence, bikes evoke much earlier, childhood memories. One of the times I felt most special was when my notoriously frugal father actually wiped the cobwebs off his credit card and spent the outrageous sum of $100 plus tax to buy me a nice French 10-speed when he really thought that three gears were plenty.
Today, we know that far fewer than half of the black boys born in the District have a father in the house to give them anything at all or protect them from the predators that surround us. As a psychologist wannabe, I think I fathom the connection between their family pathology and their projected self-hatred. But as a victim of it, I find it increasingly hard to care about anything but the safety of myself and my kids. Biking the city has been good for my body, but it has hardened my heart.
The best thing would be for the African-American community to use its influence over the District’s government to generate some effective yet humane way to restrain our scary young men. But that window of opportunity may now be closed. Years of excuses have given the underclass enough rope to hang itselfand exhaust the public’s empathy. Even in this heart of black liberalism, the D.C. Council has voted to essentially end parole.
Homeboys, you’ve had fair warning. Your brothers and sisters don’t know what to do with you, but many of us are now unable, and unwilling, to keep protecting you from other people (including black folks) who don’t consider you part of the family. They think they do know what to do, and they are building cages as fast as they can. CP