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Bicycling While Black

I would like to set at the outset, that this post is from Dr. Mark Anthony Neal blog, the author of the post is Dr. Lawrence Jackson Associate professor of English and African American studies at Emory University. I am re-posting it because I thought it was a fascinating story.

Well, here is the story:

Bicycling While Black
by Lawrence Jackson

When I was seventeen and the undercover policeman put a pistol to my head until I urinated on myself and accused me of stealing my father’s car, I was powerless to do anything.

When I was nineteen and the policeman detained me while I was walking to the bus stop for the regularly scheduled bus, I was powerless.

But as a forty-one-year-old Emory University professor I don’t have the excuse of powerlessness. And as the father of two Georgia-born sons I have the responsibility of making sure their native land does not persecute them on account of their gender and color.

This was what went through my mind one night in June at 10:50 p.m. when I was detained and fined by three Decatur City police officers in two patrol units (#1016 and #1017) for twenty-five minutes on brightly lit Clairemont Road across from the YMCA for… riding my bicycle without a light. My house, where I have lived for the last six years, was a mile-and-a-half away. Emory University, where I am tenured faculty member in two departments, was a mile away. I was across the street from the Y where my son plays soccer and T-Ball, next to the credit union where I bank.

Sunday night, I decided to ride my bicycle after three quarters of Laker dominance. But do I really need an excuse to go bike riding? Between downtown Decatur and Oakhurst village I had seen multiple police units several times, marked and unmarked. I was certainly happy to be on a bicycle where I felt some degree of immunity from them. I should have avoided the police at all cost, as I did the week before when I drove around a block in the Grant Park neighborhood to evade some stopped patrol car with blue lights. The police are professionally suspicious of black men—“Number One Males” in their lingo--and in Dekalb County they have a reputation for shooting unarmed black men.

When I was returning home on Clairemont, on my way to Desmond, as fast as I could pedal, a police patrol car with flashing lights sat parked in the right hand lane. Another patrol car without lights raced by me near the intersection of Scott Boulevard and stopped beside the first car. The Decatur police were now blocking both lanes of northbound traffic. From my vantage they seemed to be having a discussion with one another in a non-emergency situation.

I rode past the two units blocking the street. Both cars then began pursuing me and sounding different sirens and horns. Like most people who don’t believe they have broken any laws, I assumed that they had some useful purpose unconnected to me. But I was their target. After I stopped my bicycle I said to them that I couldn’t believe that they did not have more useful ways to spend their time. My Stanford roommate once was forced from his bicycle and taken to the station where they photographed his thighs. I was boiling. When I walked toward their car to give them a piece of my mind they reacted as if I meant them bodily harm and their useful police training took the entire situation to another level.

Personally, I can’t remember containing that level of fury. The eight thousand dollars in tax I paid to Georgia last year, squandered so relentlessly in “over-policing.” I’m still furious, as I was standing there in a spotlight, being monitored by a man in pre-shooting position with his hand on his gun, paces away from so that he could have enough room to unloose his weapon if I proved unmanageable. During the whole stretched out circus in the 2,000 watt spotlight and Mason’s blue light, as gawking drivers cruised past, I couldn’t stop thinking about the inevitably puzzled look my boss Jim Wagner would have if he happened to drive by with his family. “Is that Jackson, but he seemed responsible...”

I am awfully curious to know how many of my white neighbors have been detained and fined for breaking any bicycle operator’s code in Decatur that didn’t involve an accident. I am going to try to find out. I know it can’t have been many because it took three officers with computers more than fifteen minutes to locate code number 40-6-296 of the purported infringement that I had made. If that’s how Decatur’s police are keeping busy then the city and the county should spend their money more wisely.

Since my middle child was born in 2005 I have looked admiringly at City of Decatur schools and considered seriously trying to buy one of the expensive homes in “The Great Lakes” or Winona Park. Now I have a hard time thinking the sacrifice worth it.


Lawrence Jackson is Associate Professor of English and African American Studies and the author of Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (Wiley 2002; Georgia 2007) and Renaissance of Indignation: A History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton 2010). He can be contacted at lpjacks@emory.edu

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Thanks for posting this. For the national dialogue on racial profiling engendered by Professor Gates'arrest to truly be a 'teachable moment' for all of us, these are exactly the kind of stories that need to be told, and heard.