Episode 45: StreetRidersNYC

Sarah Goodyear: If you, like us, are using these quarantine times to catch up on some podcast listening, then we have a great new show to recommend that we think you’ll be into. It’s called The Sidewalk Weekly. The hosts are Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk, career journalists now working for an urban tech company called Sidewalk Labs. They break down the week’s top stories, interview experts, and they do it all in about 25 minutes. You should subscribe to The Sidewalk Weekly wherever you listen to podcasts, or visit Sidewalklabs.com/podcast.

Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. So in early June, I was marching up Flatbush Avenue at a Black Lives Matter protest here in Brooklyn, when I saw a swarm of people on bikes ride by. There were hundreds if not thousands of people on bikes, all riding together, chanting, ringing their bells and showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Somewhat coincidentally, I had brought my bike to the march that day, not because I intended to ride it while protesting, but because I hoped to ride it home.

Doug: You know, there had been this 8:00 p.m. curfew that was instituted by the mayor and the police department, and it had led to all sorts of trouble. So I figured, you know, wherever I wind up, I just want to be able to ride home as quickly as I can. So when I saw this ride go by, I just joined in. Hopped on my bike, and before I knew it, I had ridden through a bunch of Brooklyn neighborhoods in no time at all, surrounded by people with signs clipped to their bikes, and all of these people on the stoops of their buildings and on the sidewalks raising their fists and cheering. Even the drivers, they were all honking in support. That ride, I later found out, was organized by a group called StreetRidersNYC. The Street Riders are seven Black men who met at some of the recent protests in the first week or so after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The Street Riders use bikes to help guide and protect marchers from the police. Rather quickly, this small group spun off to organize weekly protest rides—each one bigger than the last. One of the leaders of the street riders is Orlando Hamilton. Orlando is 28 years old. He’s a professional chef who’s worked all over the country. He moved to Brooklyn from LA about a year and a half ago, and as he told me, he’s a bit new to political organizing.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Orlando Hamilton: My name is Orlando. I’m with the StreetRidersNYC team. We are really proud of what we’ve been putting on, but we would be nothing without y’all. So thank you all. And as soon as I find out why they asked me to talk on mic, I will let you guys know. Thank you, thank you, thank you.]

Doug: Orlando and the Street Riders have quickly become a major force in the Black Lives Matter movement here in New York. A recent ride that began in Times Square was one of the biggest protests of the past month, with an estimated 10,000 people on bikes in attendance.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it? Shut it down! If we don’t get it? Shut it down!]

Doug: I recently sat down with Orlando outside his Brooklyn apartment for a socially-distant interview. I don’t want to say much more other than that Orlando is a fantastic guy with a lot of special insights into this moment in history and the role bikes can play in the Movement for Black Lives.

Doug: Who are the Street Riders, and how did you get started?

Orlando Hamilton: All right. Basically, the Street Riders are seven different individuals. We all try to treat it more like members than a hierarchy. We all got started basically from just going to protests every single day and seeing each other out there. Most of us started off walking like everybody else, just trying to scan the environment and see what these protests are like, because a lot of us are protesting for the first time. And we kind of just created a bond. We found a need for protection and a way to get away when the police are attacking us. The curfew really encouraged us to use our bikes, so from there, we pretty much just tried to organize something that made sense, rather than doing what everybody else is doing.

Doug: But you guys didn’t know each other. You weren’t friends before the protests started.

Orlando Hamilton: No, we turned into friends throughout the protest. But even once we did our first ride, we weren’t necessarily Street Riders. That name came along after the first ride. Our Instagram, everything just started getting shaped from that first ride. And it was not intentional. That’s why I always like to make a point to say, like, this is all organic, this was not a plan. I’m not a plant. I’m just a regular dude that has a voice that people want to listen to. And my team is so solid that it only made sense to bring everybody together.

Doug: So political organizing …

Orlando Hamilton: All new.

Doug: All new to you.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: And how are you finding it?

Orlando Hamilton: Powerful. For a long time, I never really was proud of what I was doing. A lot of people outside would be more proud of me being a chef than I was. And I feel like that’s why I stuck to it so much. But with this, the joy I get from knowing that we actually might create some change from something that happened so organically is something that I can actually be proud of. So it’s special.

Doug: I want to talk about the spirit of these rides, and what you’ve noticed and you’ve seen. Because I, as a white person, you know, obviously I show up and I experience it very differently than you as a Black man, as the organizer.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: You guys have made a very strong point. I think it was at one of those rides from Grand Army Plaza where you stood up and you said, “Hey, look, this is not a party, it’s a protest.” And I think you said specifically, “We’re here to get shit done.”

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah. [laughs]

Doug: So I want to talk about that reaction that people have had. You know, I think some people do show up and think, “Oh, how cool is it I get to ride on the Williamsburg Bridge?” Or “I get to ride on Eastern Parkway.”

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: But that’s not really what it’s about. What do bikes bring to the Black Lives Matter protest movement?

Orlando Hamilton: One thing I noticed when I first started going to marches was the whole concept of white allies and our allies, and what we expect them to do. And honestly, I’m not white. I’m Black, I’m Puerto Rican, but it felt like they were being called as a sacrifice, and it wasn’t really an option. It was more like, if you’re here, you have to go to the front, you have to deal with the police. And that turned me off. Like, if you expect somebody to be with you, you got to be with them. So with our rides, first things first is to let everybody know that we’re all together. We’re all here supporting each other. We all are different as far as how much wind we have, how loud we want to be, et cetera, et cetera.

Orlando Hamilton: So I can’t tell anybody how to protest, but I can keep you on message. Like you said, we try to encourage people to not just come out and ride with us, because if you want to go on a ride with us, just DM me or call me. We can go on a ride any day. But if you come out to the protest, it’s really important that we all stay on message. If you ride bikes, you know how hard it is to sing your favorite song while riding a bike. That’s three minutes. We’re riding for three hours. So yeah, we do want everybody to chant from the start to finish, but at the same time, we got to be realistic. Like, some people are older, some people are children. Like, not everybody has as much energy or as much to say. They don’t all have as much to say.

Doug: Some people just feel like showing up is 90 percent of what they’re there for.

Orlando Hamilton: Exactly.

Doug: Just being another body out there.

Orlando Hamilton: And that means a lot to us. If you just want to say some random things, you can post that on your Instagram or your Twitter. But to actually come out and ride in a hot, sunny summer day? Like, that already you get respect from me. And then if you try to do the chants the entire time, you’re going above and beyond. I can’t do anything but just thank you for that.

Doug: So you mentioned the different types of people who are there: kids, old people.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: A big cross-section of New Yorkers. I’ve also noticed you guys have made a really strong point of announcing at the start that you want to keep a kind of moderate pace, keep everybody together. You guys, the StreetRiders, wear blue t-shirts that say Black Lives Matter on them. And you’ve made a point of saying nobody should get out ahead of us. We don’t want the ride to be separated.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: How important is it for you guys to really keep it at a slow pace, keep everybody together?

Orlando Hamilton: That’s huge. But at the same time, we understand that it’s 10,000 people. Our Times Square ride, we were told that it stretched 30 to 40 blocks in Manhattan. The first block is gonna look a lot different than the last block. We’re all different.

Doug: I want to talk about that Times Square ride. I was there. It started at 4:30 on a Saturday, and we were standing around for—I don’t know, 45 minutes.

Orlando Hamilton: 45 minutes.

Doug: Yeah. And what was happening at the front? Was there a standoff with the cops? I mean, I think this gets into a little bit of the just logistics of pulling this off. Are you negotiating with the cops? Are you saying, “Hey, this is the route we want to take?” They’re saying, “No, you can’t go that way.” What’s happening up there?

Orlando Hamilton: No, not at all. One thing that we stand on is we cannot call to defund the police or abolish the police, and then any time you need something call on the police. It’s just counterproductive. We actually went out of our way to reach out to the fire department, a group that everybody can relate to, everybody sees as an authority figure. There’s never been a song called “Fuck the Fire Department.” So they pretty much have, like, a positive impact on the community. But they turned us down, understandably, because they have to work side by side with the police. So yeah, we go out of our way to try to exhaust any other avenue outside of using the police. The reason why we were stopped in the front was just because we wanted to make sure everybody could get there. That’s it. It caused a little disruption in the back. I found out later that there was whispers that, “Oh, we think we’re getting kettled in. That’s why we’re stopped,” et cetera. None of that. We had a straight path. It was just, every 10 minutes that passed by, there’d be thousands and thousands more people showing up, so we just wanted to give everybody a chance to get there.

Doug: And that seems to be a constant theme with what you’re talking about. You just want to give everybody who wants to participate …

Orlando Hamilton: A chance.

Doug: Yeah.

Orlando Hamilton: That’s it. Like, I could ride my bike all day with a sign on my back screaming my heart out. It wouldn’t make much of a difference. If I can wait for 15,000 people to do the same thing with me, that makes a little bit of a difference.

Doug: What does that feel like? You guys went from nothing to 5,000 riders, to over 10,000 riders.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: And who knows where it’ll go next?

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: How do you guys feel about that?

Orlando Hamilton: I don’t know how to feel about it yet, I’ll be honest. Like, the first couple of times that we were gathering people, it was a struggle just to get 10 or 15 people in the front and take care of the people that were marching. This is all new. So it’s still registering. Like, maybe I’ll have more of a feeling about it looking back. But right now, every time I look out it just kind of makes me tear up. It’s something I can’t really comprehend yet.

Doug: So I want to talk about bikes as a tool of protest. What do you think the benefit is then of using bicycles?

Orlando Hamilton: Basically with the bike, one prime example of just how it’s a good tool is when New York City went on curfew. You might end up at a protest in Washington Square Park, and you live in Brooklyn, and you look up and it’s already past curfew. And that created a lot of problems. They stopped the trains, they stopped Uber, they stopped Lyft, they stopped the Citi Bikes. And before you knew it, you were stranded and potentially gonna be arrested or given a ticket for being out after curfew. So that was one thing that, like, really made us stick to the bikes. As far as a tool goes, it’s a good barrier between the people that are walking and dangerous motorists, police that want to get aggressive with anybody that they can get close to. You’ll notice we don’t have caravans of police, like, riding with us. They can’t keep up. They don’t even know what to do about it. If you watch the police scanners, they’re confused, they’re frustrated. We’re moving too fast. Our message is getting to multiple boroughs in one day. And I feel like that might be the most powerful part of riding the bike is just how far we span in such a short amount of time.

Doug: In your experience, what’s the reaction been from drivers? Because you’re clogging intersections, you’re backing up traffic in every direction. I mean, I’ve had my experience on these rides being that most of the drivers have their fists out the window. The bus drivers are honking in support. What’s your experience been?

Orlando Hamilton: My experience has been loaded. Like you said, most people do support. They’ll throw the fist out the window. They’ll honk their horns. But there’s been a lot of incidents where drivers are pissed. They have to get home, they’re hungry, they have to pick up their kids from daycare or whatever, and now they’re in traffic for 45 minutes because of our bike protests. One thing that we did and we do is try to give the motorists an update on, look, we’re coming, so you guys better turn now. You better go now. Like, we will help you out, we’ll direct you down the right way, because once we’re here, you’re stuck. And a lot of them do get it, and a lot of them do understand. It’s disheartening when the people that we’re fighting for are more upset than some of our allies, which I could say every single ride has been a topic. But for the most part, most people just are happy to see something so massive and so supportive.

Doug: So these rides, you know, we’re not just protesting police violence, but we’re protesting an entire system of white supremacy and of inequality and inequities. When you do these rides, because of the distance you can span on a bicycle, you’re able to really see in very sharp focus the differences in bike infrastructure and road conditions from one neighborhood to the next—block by block, even.

Orlando Hamilton: Well, prior to the protests, I mostly biked around Brooklyn. And from neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on the class level, it’s hard to miss it. In some parts of East New York: Flatbush, Crown Heights, there’s no bike lanes at all, which means you’re riding shoulder to shoulder with these cars that are in a rush. And it’s dangerous. And then on top of that, you have potholes, and the streets are messed up. And then you make your way over to Williamsburg or Dumbo and it’s beautiful. The streets are smooth, there’s multiple bike lanes. It’s accessible for everybody. And granted, we’re for that. We want that. We just want that spread out everywhere. We don’t want it to be redlined like everything else. There’s bikers in East New York, too. There’s bikers in Bushwick as well. When we plan our rides, we go out of our way to make sure that you see both, because if I can take 10,000 people down Eastern Parkway and the entire time as bumpy, and then as soon as we get to Dumbo, it’s smooth, they get it. And that’s exactly what we live every single day.

Doug: Yeah, it was hard not to notice on the second-to-last ride, I did. It took you down Eastern Parkway into Ridgewood, Queens.

Orlando Hamilton: Yep.

Doug: And, you know, there’s maybe …

Orlando Hamilton: It was awful.

Doug: Right. There’s maybe a couple of bike lanes that you see there, but pretty much the roads are in terrible shape.

Orlando Hamilton: Terrible.

Doug: Nothing.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah. We go out of our way so that everybody can see it. We don’t expect you to just ride down to a neighborhood that you don’t know. I don’t do that often either. But if we’re all together, and we all want to see what’s actually going on, then we’ll take you down and show you exactly what we’re talking about, and not just complain about it and not give you examples.

Doug: Biking while Black is a real thing.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: I’ve been pulled over once by the police in 22 years of riding in the city.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: And it was for a kind of bullshit reason. And I yelled at the cop.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah.

Doug: And, you know, I had the privilege and ability to do that without fear for my life. But that’s obviously not the experience in a lot of neighborhoods for a lot of people. What’s your experience been, just as a regular cyclist?

Orlando Hamilton: If I’m riding at night, and it’s cold and I’m wearing a hoodie, I do have to think twice before I put the hood on. I have been tailed by the police before. I have been stopped and asked, like, what’s in my backpack? It’s weird because you get used to it, and you don’t even think about it. It’s just like, “Dude, I have nothing in my backpack. I’m going home. I just got off work.” And then they give you a look, they look you up and down, they see you’re in your chef pants and they’re like, “All right, you get a pass today.” But not everybody is getting a pass that day. And it’s not just for bikes, it’s with driving, it’s with going to Starbucks and doing your work, it’s with being on a construction site and looking like you’re up to something and you’re not actually up to anything. It’s everywhere.

Doug: It’s going for a run.

Orlando Hamilton: It’s going for a run. It’s all of that. So we don’t want to make this all about bikes. That’s just the one thing that we love to do. You know, that’s one thing that everybody of all ages generally enjoys doing. So the disparities towards bikers is just exactly the same as any other situation being Black or a minority.

Doug: What’s next for you guys? How does this movement, specifically for you and the StreetRiders keep going? You know, the protests show no sign of slowing down.

Orlando Hamilton: No.

Doug: You know, I think all that’s really happened in New York is the repeal of 50-a, the disclosure act for police records. So that’s, you know, one of many items on a list of things that people are asking for. How do you see the role of StreetRiders going forward in the movement here in New York and elsewhere?

Orlando Hamilton: Just yesterday, I received a video of the man that killed George Floyd.

Doug: Oh, right. Shopping, right?

Orlando Hamilton: Walking through a grocery store, living his regular life. Enjoying his day, not punished, was able to bail out. And this man is buried six feet under the ground. He will never be able to see his kids and family again. That’s a problem. That’s a big problem. We don’t plan on slowing down at all. If they’re not gonna slow down, we’re not gonna slow down. As far as the future for us, we want to eventually become a nonprofit organization, just to kind of keep everything solid and organized, especially since our following is so big. We want to expand. We’ve been getting a lot of messages from other states saying they want us to come down there and do it with them as well. But we’re just taking it day by day. So for the future, we would like an annual solidarity ride around the nation, around the world. But until we can make it perfect, we can’t expand to that. We don’t want it to be half-assed just because we’re in a different state, and that’s not where we’re from. We want it to be just as powerful everywhere.

Doug: And there’s something about it being so organically grown here in New York, where it’s just like a spark ignited, thousands of people showed up.

Orlando Hamilton: I didn’t even know that many people had bikes. In New York, cycling has always been kind of a white male type of experience. You’ll see them with their outfits and their nice street bikes, and they pretty much control that area of biking. So to see so many different people—including them—come out and support what we’re doing, it’s shocking. It’s shocking to see people on tandem bikes or with baskets and their pets in the front, and jeans and dresses. It kind of takes the stigma away, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud to say that now cycling is more about the bike and not the individual.

Doug: What you’re hitting on is so important because the bike, like you were saying earlier, is just this tool that you’re using for protests, so that you can get farther into neighborhoods, so you can cover more ground, be out for longer, not be as tired as you might be marching. But at the same time, it’s this unifier in many ways.

Orlando Hamilton: Yeah. I mean, to see so many people that would never interact with each other on the bike lanes or in those neighborhoods or at Prospect Park riding around, to actually be interacting and learning about each other in the middle of the street with us, that’s everything.

Doug: And that’s one thing you really do emphasize. I’ve talked about some of the announcements that you make at the beginning of the rides, but I really think one of the things I’ve taken away is just how much you encourage people to talk to each other.

Orlando Hamilton: It builds a sense of comfort. I’ve been to a lot of protests where you’re standing out there with thousands of people and you haven’t talked to one person. And these people come from all walks of lives. You’re missing great opportunities to talk to somebody that’s amazing, that’s interesting, that has a story, that has experiences that maybe you could learn from. So yeah, if you come to our rides and somebody in front hears what we’re saying but you don’t, talk to that person. I can’t get to 15,000-10,000 people, but you guys can get to each other and that’s important for us.

Doug: That’s a perfect note to end on. Orlando, thanks so much for joining The War on Cars.

Orlando Hamilton: Dude. Doug, you’re amazing. Thank you.

Doug: This was awesome. Thank you.

Orlando Hamilton: Thank you, for real.

Doug: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Many thanks to Orlando Hamilton for speaking with me. If you want to learn more about the Street Riders, go to StreetRidersNYC.com, or follow them on Instagram and Twitter, where their handles on both platforms are @StreetridersNYC.

Doug: Thanks to our top Patreon sponsors: the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, and Drew Raines. Thanks also to our sponsor, Sidewalk Labs. Please go check out their new podcast, Sidewalk Weekly, a lighthearted chat show providing your weekly dose of urban tech news.

Doug: If you want to help produce the podcast, go to Thewaroncars.org and become a Patreon supporter. As thanks, we will send you stickers and t-shirts and give you access to exclusive content. You can also email us at [email protected] with your comments, your questions and your suggestions. We love hearing from listeners.

Doug: This episode was produced, recorded and edited by me. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. On behalf of my co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek, I’m Doug Gordon, and this is The War on Cars.