Is cycling a civil right?

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Although legally accorded the right to ride in the roadway, bicyclists are hardly treated equally by motorists, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, or legislators. It is a commonplace that, as with the Olin Milton case in Los Angeles, egregious acts that result in the death of a rider are simply not prosecuted. Daily harassment, violence in the form of being hit by motorists, verbal assaults, physical confrontations, and the low-level hatred spewed out by cagers and non-cyclists give the conflict distinct similarities with the way that white society interacts with black.

Many cycling advocates have noted the similarities and have framed the right to use our roadways without fear of harassment and death a civil right, one on the order of the right to vote and the right to participate in society without being attacked because of the color of your skin. Freedom of movement is one of the most important civil rights, and a society that restricts it and punishes those who choose to get around without a car is, the argument goes, as egregious as being deprived of the right to vote.

Other similarities abound, one of the biggest being the “separate but equal” doctrine of those who support bike lanes. Reminiscent of Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark Supreme Court case that permitted racial segregation as long as the facilities were equal, bike segregationists promote the idea that it’s okay to keep bikes out of the roadway as long as they have a separate “bikes only” place to pedal — no matter that the bike lane is filled with debris, doesn’t go where the roads go, is inconvenient, and doesn’t keep cars from swiping in and killing you.

So it’s persuasive to say that the right of cyclists to use the roads is on a par with the civil rights movement, especially when cyclists die on what is almost a daily basis.

It’s persuasive, but it’s wrong.

The civil rights movement did not stem from a narrow denial of a single right such as the right to freely use the roadways. It stemmed from a comprehensive system of oppression, originating in the slavery of millions of people that deprived U.S. citizens of the right to vote, to marry, to receive an education, to work, to receive equal pay, to receive health care, to travel, to obtain accommodations, even to use public toilets and public drinking fountains. These wrongs were not based on an individual’s choice of transportation, i.e. bike v. car. They were based on the color of your skin.

If you were born black, you were denied equal protection of the laws — of all laws. If you were white, as Bill Broonzy sang, “You’re all right.” If you’re black? Get back, get back, get back, get back.

Whereas cyclists, state by state, try to affect their rights on roads via legislation, the wrongs that were fought against in the civil rights movement were the continuation of a war that killed 600,000 people and destroyed the lives of millions. The movement itself had to oppose and defeat state sponsored violence, lynching, the murder of children, the bombing of churches, and the killing of activists who simply sought the rights they were guaranteed under our constitution.

It damages cycling advocacy to try and claim parity with the civil rights movement, just like it damages people who protest modern wars to compare them with the Holocaust. By appropriating the language of such seminal events, you expropriate them as well. Your tragedy, however tragic, is not and can never be the Holocaust. Your death at the hands of a careless texter is not and can never be the enslavement of an entire race.

At the same time we can and should use the lessons of those who fought in the civil rights movement. They looked to David Thoreau and his theory of civil disobedience; we can look to the united front of civil rights marchers as we refuse to accept the slaughter in the streets and the separate, unequal facilities being foisted on us. By honoring the struggles of others and learning from them, without stripping away their hard-earned denominations and claiming them for ourselves, we do the right thing and actually give ourselves a chance.

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