Elly Blue recently wrote an article about Biking and Civil Rights, which discusses appropriating civil rights discourse in bike advocacy.
She talks about how cyclists often use the discourse of civil rights and compare cycling as a civil rights issue to other civil rights struggles across gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. Her point is that if you’re going to say that biking is a civil rights issue, than you better also be fighting for the other civil rights issues that you’re comparing biking to.
So if you want to say that bicycling is a civil rights issue, or that violence against cyclists is similar to violence against women, then you’d better be prepared to make sure that these are exactly the battles you are fighting. Otherwise you’re just appropriating someone else’s struggle for a cause that helps you and makes you feel great but may actually be hindering them.
I’m still processing how I feel about comparing and appropriating other civil rights struggles to biking. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable comparing different types of violence or trying to say that because I experience one type of exclusion or prejudice that I then understand other forms of violence and oppression. I’m afraid that that sort of claim trivializes the experience I’m appropriating, and that it’s a way to take power away from that experience.
I personally prefer to phrase bike activism in terms of citizenship and democracy (the logic being that all people should have equal access to the street regardless of the economic resources that they have – walking, biking, driving, etc – and that as part of a democracy all transportation users should have an equal voice). Yes, it’s pretty much two sides of the same coin, but for me I feel more comfortable with using the language of democracy, while in my actions trying to fight against oppression and for civil rights. I think this way I’m not claiming to understand someone else’s experience, but instead am using language that is meant to be as inclusive as possible and trying to act in solidarity.
Anyways, back to the article – Elly also brings up examples of ways in which bike advocacy at times actively works against existing civil rights issues.
If mainstream bike advocacy continues to focus on raising property values in and attracting “creative professionals” (all too often code for “white”) to gentrifying neighborhoods, then bicycling isn’t a civil rights struggle, it’s a powerful symbol of an economic process that many people are going to rightly feel like they need to struggle against.
As much as I want to end this article with a ‘capitalism – meh.’ Instead, I will say that I appreciate Elly’s article, first because it’s helping me to understand my own position in the language I use around bike advocacy, and second because it’s sparking this conversation at all.