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Building the Seattle Bike Brigade

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Courtesy of Seattle Bike Brigade

I first learned of the Seattle Bike Brigade on June 10. Katrina Johnson posted a request on Facebook for help organizing a vigil to mark the third anniversary of the June 18, 2017 murder of her cousin Charleena Lyles by the Seattle Police Department (SPD). I called Katrina to ask what she needed. Food for family members of victims of police murder coming from around the country, she told me. Transportation. And, most important, security. The visiting family members had all lived through intense trauma, and their safety must be centered. I began reaching out to activist networks. One friend connected me to Seattle Bike Brigade (SBB).

The massive uprising against police violence and white supremacy was less than two weeks old, and SBB had only been in existence for a week. In those early, chaotic protests, Seattle activists Bailey, Riko, Woody, King, Jo, Veronica, Wes, and others ran into each other on the streets, developing new connections and deepening existing ones. Bailey and Woody created a Signal thread aiming to link folks to protest actions.

During a June 2 protest, marchers headed out of downtown Seattle and up the hill toward SPD’s East Precinct. Woody and King were in the back of the march with other bicyclists, and noticed a militarized police force falling in line behind the protesters. King had previously organized bikes during protests in Portland. He demonstrated how folks could use their bikes to keep the militarized force away from the protesters—particularly the Black Indigenous People of Color (BlPOC) marchers. “The bikes closed ranks as we went up the hill,” says Woody. “It just sprang out of necessity.”

Bailey realized that the Signal thread could do more than relay protest information. It could “fill a gap that our community needed in that moment,” she said. Bailey and Woody created a new Signal thread organizing twenty-odd bikers to take a repressive tool of the state—bike cops—transform it, and use it against the state. Three days later, the Signal thread had 200 bikers, with more showing up for actions. The primary organizers met to devise a loose structure and articulate the nascent group’s values. Those who had been “rolling” with the collective since day one would comprise a non-hierarchical leadership; the “core collective.”

By this point, groups like Decriminalize Seattle had begun articulating three central movement demands: defund the SPD by 50%; reallocate those resources into community-led health and safety systems; release all arrested protesters without charges. Bailey and other bike brigaders had relationships with organizers from Decriminalize Seattle, who helped them refine their language and goals. Within days, Seattle Bike Brigade was defining itself as a “community collective committed to antiracist mutual aid by using bikes and bodies to hold safe space for direct action.”

SBB made intentional choices from the start about which protest actions they could support. They decided to focus on actions in alignment with the “big three” demands that Decriminalize Seattle and a wide swath of other organizers were calling for, and to foster a culture among the bikers to always ask the following questions when deciding where to show up: Who is leading a particular action? What are their demands? Who is hearing those demands?

“[The bikes are] not leading the action, they're not dictating the action, they’re not aggressing the action,” says Woody, a thirty-year-old comedian and part of SBB’s core collective. “They’re allowing the action to develop as it needs and for BIPOC bodies to organize for their own lives, in the way that they see fit.”

A new coalition of BIPOC high school students, the Seattle Change Coalition, planned a march to SPD’s downtown West Precinct for June 10th. The organizers, including a graduating senior named Amalia, met with Woody to talk about SBB’s participation. “Woody was just trying to see how the bike brigade could serve us,” recalls Amalia. “We obviously had no idea they were going to end up potentially saving lives or saving people from getting seriously injured.”

The march to the precinct occurred without incident. Once there, the teens sat in the intersection in front of the precinct, blocked on all sides by bikers, for eight minutes and 43 seconds of silence, “the time that George Floyd had his neck pressed into the ground,” Amalia says. Amalia heard honking and yelling behind her, turned her head, and saw bikers running toward a car.

Amalia’s father, Sean, had biked to the demonstration, saw SBB in action, and decided to roll with them. He witnessed more fully what Amalia could only partially see. Sean describes a driver pushing his way through the first bike line and roaring down the street straight towards the second bike line directly guarding the teens. One biker put his hands up, and when the driver didn’t slow, he threw his bike under the car. The car ran over the bike, then stopped, swarmed by bikers and pedestrians, one of whom broke the rear window. The driver pulled away into an underground garage.

Amalia was shocked—she couldn’t quite believe this was happening. She stared at a preschooler sleeping in a wagon on the sidewalk, imagining what might have happened to him. “We’re totally indebted to them,” she says of the bike brigade. “We’re so lucky that they were there.”

Meanwhile, Seattle activist, artist, attorney, and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver Tweeted to her nearly 41,000 followers. “A bike brigade biker’s bike was destroyed. Let’s get them a new one. The community is full of heroes because they jumped into immediate action to protect our children and youth,” followed shortly after by, “These bikers have been keeping us safe! Let’s make sure they can eat, pay rent, and buy equipment. They are literally putting their bodies on the line and proving we keep us safe.” She linked to a just-established GoFundMe page—which has raised $36,000 for SBB to date. Media followed Oliver’s Tweets. The 200-person Signal thread grew to 500, Signal transitioned to Slack, and SBB was now on the map.

Rolling with complexities

On June 12, I rode my bike to the newly formed Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, created outside a precinct building that the police had abandoned, intending to lock up my bike and join a youth-led march. I ran into the friend who had connected me to SBB for Charleena’s vigil. I had assumed every bike brigader had to be a bad-ass on a bike (which I am decidedly not), but my friend assured me that I only needed to be comfortable riding. I joined the bike brigade at the rear of the march (or “the tail” in SBB lingo) and quickly got a feel for the system: “corking” the street to prevent vehicles from interacting with protesters, de-escalating frustrated drivers. Amidst supportive honks and upraised fists, one passing driver shouted at us, “You’re human garbage!” Another driver blocked the street with his SUV, approached us in a menacing manner, and told us that racism didn’t exist since his Labrador puppy (in his arms at the time) was black. Woody coached us on when to advance to the next intersection and how to “keep the lines crispy.” I rode again with SBB the next day, and the following morning, participated in SBB de-escalation training.

Skilled up from my weekend of actions, I biked to a demonstration in my neighborhood, joining a thin line of cyclists at a busy intersection as protesters marched. The cyclists were not part of bike brigade, they told me, just community members with bikes trying to be helpful. Leaping with my bike in front of an angry white man on a motorcycle, I just managed to prevent him from roaring through the street thronged with protestors. Minutes later, a woman ignored my offer of an escort through the crowd, frantic to get home to her child who had had an emergency, almost hitting me and several protesters as she raced ahead. I understood what a vast difference it made to have SBB’s numbers, structure, and clear communication with action organizers. I also experienced first-hand some of the complexities inherent in bike brigade. The desperate mother was Black, as were most of the drivers in the neighborhood. Myself and the other bikers blocking them were white.

Riko, a twenty-seven-year-old core collective member, reflects on these complexities. SBB has a lot of difficult work to do as an organization, she says, including recruiting more Black bikers. No matter how many anti-racism teach-ins bikers attend, if the group is primarily white, it impacts how BIPOC communities perceive them. As a Black cyclist navigating white supremacy as well as busy city streets, Riko says that more Black brigaders would deepen her trust in the collective that she co-founded. This requires being attentitve to the culture SBB is creating and whether is welcoming to Black cyclists. “Would they feel comfortable coming into this space? Would they look around and say, ‘Oh, I do trust these people to my left and right?’ And I don’t know the answer to that, I don’t think any of us do.”

SBB members are working to provide bikes to BIPOC folks, as well as support on how to navigate the streets, and, as Riko puts it, “How to know that they can take up the space as a Black person.” Woody also grapples with what he calls “the inherent paradox of SBB.” It feels important that white and light folks hold the perimeter, creating safe space for BIPOC bodies, yet it can’t be only white and light bikers. “Navigating that will forever be the challenge of this work,” he says. Bailey agrees. “We can create a Slack thread in a week. But this work is going to take time, and it’s going to take relationship.”

It will also take the ongoing examination of difficult questions; questions that (in my month of involvement) SBB has committed to exploring. How do bikers communicate with each other, with communities they are riding through, with protesters, with agitators? How should the collective and its leadership be structured so that it doesn’t mimic the very hierarchies it intends to disrupt? “Those [white supremacist] hierarchies are insidious and really deeply rooted,” Woody notes.

The majority of SBB’s core collective is BIPOC, and BIPOC and/or femme coaches are consistently recruited. Yet, after a recent action, I noticed that the majority of volunteers facilitating small-group debriefs were white men. “Those are the folks throughout their lives who have felt comfortable taking up space in that way,” Riko says. The core collective actively disrupts that dynamic. At a recent skill-share, Woody continually reported what percentage of airtime was being taken up by white men. The percentage lowered as the event progressed.

SBB also continually navigates questions of safety, of each other and BIPOC protesters. Thinking about group safety feels familiar to Woody; in his non-bike-brigade life, he house-manages large theatres.

Riko doesn’t fully trust anyone with her safety but herself. But, she does all she can to keep those around her safe, especially with bike brigade. Her life experience—in the military and otherwise—taught her to react quickly to danger. She’s been trying to think through how to share her skills with bike brigade, while avoiding militarization. Riko holds her fear inside, alongside pent-up anger resulting from multiple experiences, “but especially what’s happening with violence against Black bodies.” She channels her anger in order to stay vigilant.

Infiltrators are another potential threat. There’s no way to know that all 889 members of SBB’s Slack channel are trustworthy. Twenty-eight-year-old Bailey advocates instead that each biker understand their legal rights and the inherent risks they are opting into. Woody feels safest seeing the same faces repeatedly. Roughly 150 bikers attend each action; 50 of those come regularly. “It demonstrates; you’re willing to be known and you’re making yourself known.” Through ongoing community building, suspicious people rolling through are spotted easily.

Bailey internalizes responsibility to BIPOC communities more than fear, stemming from her recent unearthing of her family’s history as colonizers and enslavers. “Part of my own journey of understanding whiteness and understanding my family’s history is taking responsibility for that,” she says.

“A couple hours of joy”

Katrina has interacted with SBB at three actions in the past month, starting with her cousin Charleena’s June 18 vigil. She next encountered the brigade at a march to the home of Seattle’s mayor, where she was a speaker. Katrina observed bikers scouting the route, corking streets, and communicating with the organizers and the other security teams. Because of that, “People who are protesting can focus on protesting and not worry about, ‘is someone going to come crashing through here?’” That concern is not hypothetical; Katrina and I had this conversation twelve hours after Seattle protester Summer Taylor was struck and killed by a driver.

Katrina especially appreciates the bike brigade centering those who are most directly impacted by state violence. She witnessed this both at Charleena’s vigil, and at the memorial marking one year since the police murdered Stonechild (Stoney) Chiefstick in Poulsbo, a rural Washington community. SBB’s approach was particularly evident when local activists’ vision of the event differed from the wishes of Stoney’s family. The small SBB team sought to support the family’s wishes.

Helping people feel safe is no small thing for Katrina. “Especially impacted people, we have so much on our minds and so much on our plate that we’re dealing with at any given time.” She could take a deep breath at Charleena’s vigil, knowing that SBB was staying vigilant, and kept a constant line of communication with the other security team. “That’s the kind of peace of mind that families really want and need, because we want to get out into the streets, and we want to protest, but we want to be safe. A lot of us have targets on our backs already. Times where you actually feel safe, where you can let your guard down a little bit—I have only felt those with the bike brigade.”

Riko and Bailey recall another defining moment during a march in Bellevue (a city approximately six miles east of Seattle), led by high schoolers from the Eastside Change Coalition. Bailey remembers the youth asking the bike brigade if they could take the upcoming intersection. “And we were like, ‘Yeah! This is your march! You want to take this intersection? Fucking take it!’’” Even after bikers blocked the intersection, the teens huddled to one side, perhaps intimidated by the motorcycle cops who were trailing and surveilling their march. A few bikers encouraged the young people to spread out and sit down—it was their intersection now. They could take up as much space as they wanted.

What happened minutes later still gives Riko the chills. The students were sitting in dead silence in the intersection. Then, one shouted, “I can’t breathe.” Another called out, “Mama!” Riko realized she was hearing the last words of victims of state murder, voiced by Black and Brown teenagers who half an hour earlier had been making fiery speeches and performing spoken word pieces.

“I lost it. I was wearing my helmet with my visor that day so no one saw,” Riko says. She wondered, “Am I emotionally strong enough to [defend the line], or am I going to be crying under my helmet all the time?”

Woody remembers a six-hour #SayHerName march which counter-protestors continuously tried to disrupt. Afterwards, the organizers told Woody they hadn’t even realized there had been agitators. By absorbing those hours of escalated anxiety, the bikers had held a space that allowed Black womxn to express joy, rage, and grief, without worrying about safety and risk. “Does that counteract lifetimes of police brutality? No. But it’s a couple of hours of joy that we were a part of,” Woody reflects.

Also meaningful was that those same organizers shared their feeling that SBB was not an accessory to their event, but a partner. “We’re not vigilantes, we’re not saviors, we’re not bodies coming in to take anything from anyone or to give anything to anyone. We’re there to collaborate,” says Woody, who calls that direct feedback from Black womxn the kind of emotional gift that gets him out of bed on scarier days.

Community Force

Bikes are not the heartbeat of SBB. Community action is. “Bikes are just a demonstration of this mutual aid, of this community force,” says Woody.

Bailey loves the idea of SBB helping skill folks up in direct action, skills that can be utilized in all kinds of non-bike ways. “There’s something really, really special and moving about being a home for folks to deepen and broaden the way that they show up in movement.”

Riko is too angry to stay at home. Scrolling through Instagram to learn about the next person who dies is not an option. “I’m trying to figure out my leadership style, I’m trying to figure out how I can also have hard conversations with people with different backgrounds from me, but I’d rather try and do it all than not do anything.”

Woody relates to feeling like there is no choice. “This world ain’t shit without folks of color, without womxn of color specifically, and as a long-time educator in the queer space again there’s no option to not throw down for the bodies that have made this world beautiful, fantastic and brilliant,” he says.

For Katrina, bike brigade boils down to making the police irrelevant. “We don’t need police. Police are scary and they traumatize people and they kill people. So we have an alternate plan for that. And that alternate plan is, the bike brigade.” SBB is essential to all Katrina’s future actions. “I am eternally grateful for them for all of their help and support, and the level of care that they take while doing their job. That matters. It literally matters.”

Jen Marlowe is an author/documentary filmmaker/playwright and human rights/social justice activist. She is the founder of Donkeysaddle Projects, which creates pieces within the realms of film, theatre, and creative non-fiction to amplify stories of resistance and struggles for equality and liberation.