We are proud that the Safe Routes Partnership no longer emphasizes enforcement and instead challenges us to improve our forms of engagement. 

Many conversations are being had about how our current form of policing upholds White supremacy. We at the Bike Fed know how this idea can be new and challenging for people who haven’t ever personally experienced discrimination.

But, during my time at the Wisconsin Bike Federation, I have watched this systemic racism play out firsthand and feel it is imperative to share some of these experiences to illustrate how harmful the police can be to the physical and emotional well-being of community members who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

The experiences of our Safe Routes to School team and our Milwaukee Public School students has demonstrated this lived experience of racially unjust policing.  Just this last summer in 2019 a White person at Hart Park in Wauwatosa called the police on a group of predominantly African-American bicycle campers who were simply having fun on the playground.  Our amazing Safe Routes Instructors had a brief and respectful conversation with the officer and were back on their bikes to school before the situation could escalate.  But, it is alarming and saddening that our Black campers could not have done that journey by themselves without fear of a White resident calling the police on them because their existence in a public space made her uncomfortable.  We must do more so that every child can truly roam freely and that parents don’t have to worry about their children’s safety. Are you ready to do the work with us?

Consider that a few years prior to the incident at Hart Park, a Milwaukee Police officer pulled over our instructors and the young Black men with whom they were riding from Brown St. Academy to Bradford Beach.  As these boys stood in a line with their backs to the wall of a Walgreens on Brady St., they listened as the officer called in a request for backup and claimed that the reason our team was pulled over was because of the “size of the bicycles.” The officer stated that the incident was not racially motivated because he went to high school in MPS, as if racism disappears simply because you live in a diverse community.  But, I wonder, would he have dared to pull over a group of White children biking on Milwaukee’s Eastside? Nevertheless, the incident was certainly traumatic for our campers, who after 2 weeks of team-building and hard work were supposed to be experiencing the climax of the camp, where they biked to Lake Michigan through the power of their pedaling feet. Instead, they were told to keep their backs to the wall and remained respectfully silent as community members came to their defense. While they did briefly spend time at the beach the defining memory of that day is one of police overreach and harassment with the underlying message that they were not welcome in certain public spaces because of the color of their skin. 

At the same age as our bicycle campers, my own White privilege allowed me to ride without fear anywhere I pleased. I had the freedom to ride by bicycle along Racine’s lakeshore to the library, to the skate park, to chase geese at the park; never worried that someone would call the police. That is not the lived experience of many of our young people across Wisconsin as we continue to perpetuate a system of White supremacy. This pervading system of racism infiltrates every aspect of our society and has helped foster deep divisions. We can no longer look away.

It is vital that you keep these experiences of the Bike Fed staff in mind when you hear calls to defund the police.  Defunding the police does not mean abolishing the police. Rather, it is a recognition that the current system is broken and there are alternative models already being implemented across the country and indeed in Wisconsin that promote community safety. This is why the national Safe Routes Partnership, the leader on establishing policy and advocating for funding within the federal Transportation Alternatives Program, has removed Enforcement as one of their core principles and replaced it with Engagement. 

This policy direction demands a smaller budget for enforcement through police departments and more for neighborhood services. Examples of neighborhood services range from home-repair grants, improved transit shelters, community bicycle events, neighborhood walking groups, child-care, traffic-experiments, and other types of engagement that are good for public health and are responsive to the expressed needs of residents.  Through such engagement we can improve residents’ sense of ownership and agency in their neighborhoods. Additionally, through increased community involvement we can reduce the demand for the militarized automotive police state.  For example, some of MPD’s budget could be redirected from enforcement and moved towards education such as traditional Driver’s Education programs which have been tragically underfunded in Milwaukee. It could also mean more money for Bicycle Driver’s Ed so we can reach even more students and expand programs across the state! 

The calls for reform also mean ending the distribution of surplus military equipment to police departments and more investment in federally funded Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality programs such as our Connect 53212: Smart Trips program which ran from 2014-2016.  Through that pilot program the Bike Fed developed a model of direct community engagement which emphasized partnerships with organizations such as Safe & Sound, which currently does transformative work in the Milwaukee community promoting safety in ways that do not criminalize skin color.  These alternative models of managing community safety are overdue and more vital now than ever.

Certainly, we have had plenty of positive experiences out in the community with police officers; they frequently help block traffic when we are riding with students during camps and are instrumental in the success of larger scale bike rides. But, the truth is that meaningful and equitable enforcement of traffic laws hasn’t been happening in Milwaukee for decades. Additionally, MPD has proven to not be ready or willing to meaningfully meet us at the table as we work to address reckless driving and pedestrian fatalities in a city where African Americans are disproportionately killed as a result of motor-vehicle use. While we plan to continue working with partners at MPD and welcome them to the table it is clear that things must change in our city and indeed across Wisconsin. 

Finally, it is important for us as Bike Fed members to be vulnerable during this time of social change using it as a moment to reflect upon our own experiences, practices, and behaviors.  It is then imperative that we develop plans both personal and structural with how we will deal with racial inequities in our built environment and society.  We at the Bike Fed have recently taken an article by anthropologist-planner, Dr. Destiny Thomas, ‘Safe Streets’ are not Safe for Black Lives as a direct challenge to our own practices. In the article she states, “While many people have just begun their journeys to unlearn racism and walk in allyship, quick-build equity won’t pull us from the grips of structural racism that got us here.”  As we move forward with implementing programs with our partners this summer  we are dedicated to building a stronger, more inclusive, bike-friendly Wisconsin. We will continue to challenge ourselves and our partners to develop stronger models of community engagement that emphasize the lived experiences of People of Color in Wisconsin. It is impossible for us to be a truly bike-friendly state until Black children can ride to the beach by themselves.  That is the fundamental promise of the bicycle; that at any moment you can go out for a joy ride and experience a profound sense of independence.  Join us in building a Wisconsin where Black people too experience the same independence.