Not the Devil’s Children
“Let’s get him”, they yelled.
We had hit Bridgeport, Connecticut late in the day on Friday on our way to New Haven(1), and we were already riding well behind schedule. I was riding alone about a half-mile ahead of the pack, scouting the route, and looking for major hills or hazards to warn the less experienced cyclists about.
I didn’t see them until they yelled, and as I turned to look behind me, 10 to 12 young black teenagers on street bikes start speeding up to catch me.
My heart leapt into my chest: This wasn’t a nice neighborhood; the rest of my group was nowhere in sight; and all I had on me was two water bottles and skin-tight spandex biking outfit. It was stupid of me to get so far ahead.
But almost as quickly as my heart leapt into my chest, I started to calm down: on my road bike I could easily outpace my pursuers; in reality I didn’t know they meant me any harm; and for god’s sake, they were just kids. I breathed in deeply, started slowing done and called back, “come on guys… we’re going to Rhode Island.”
And they laughed, pulled up beside me, and we started racing each other in the streets. For about five minutes, I was a kid again, racing between cars, and laughing with my unexpected friends; five minutes that my heart had almost cheated me of.
The Devil Cometh
And then the fun ended in a way I hadn’t expected.
The ride I was doing was in support of the Jack Brown Appeal. An amazing man named Mark Edwards in the London Metropolitan Police Department had convinced over 30 of his co-workers (fellow Bobbys) to travel to the US and do this ride on mountain bikes. He had convinced the New York, Providence and Cranston RI police departments to provide support crews (and additional riders). He had convinced Paul Nichols at Team Continuum to raise some money and provide some riders (like me) to help get the rest of the folks to Rhode Island safely. He had raised over $125,000 for Jack.
But most relevant to this story, Paul and Mark had convinced BMW of America to donate the use of a BMW car for the ride. The Bobbys had brought decals and a light bar with them and had dressed up the BMW to look exactly like a London Police car.
Five minutes into my ride with the young kids, this fake police car crested the hill and came into sight.
One of the kids looked back, saw the car with its flashing lights and 30 bike riders behind it, and yelled, “Shit, he brought the devil with him!”
Within two seconds, every kid had disappeared. It looked like a well rehearsed military maneuver! All the kids scattered in separate directions to make pursuit impossible, jumping over curbs, ducking behind cars, and shooting down alleys.
And I was left alone to wonder what happened.
The Evil in Men’s Hearts
I don’t consider myself a racist, and I doubt anyone would characterize me that way. And yet, in a moment of panic, with nothing but instinct to guide me on how to respond to “let’s get him”, my heart told me to run away from a bunch of kids because they were black and poor.
I can argue with myself that it’s a sensible reaction on my part. I can say it was a bad neighborhood which increased the chance of harm coming to me, so the rational thing to do was run.
But I know nothing about Bridgeport. I based my “bad neighborhood” point above on the fact that the neighborhood looked poor and black. But here’s an interesting fact: I grew up even poorer (but white) and that didn’t drive me and my family to crime. Why assume poverty would drive people to crime in this neighborhood?
What’s more while I “don’t consider myself a racist” I don’t test that theory often. I live in an almost exclusively white neighborhood, I have few black friends, and my community involvement to date has been to meet other similar folks who do athletic events to raise money for less fortunate people we (almost) never see. I’m the text-book example of an open-minded intellectual who preaches on the evils of racism, but is afraid to take the subway in Harlem because, well, it just isn’t safe.
But perhaps as sad as my initial reaction to the kids, was their reaction to the fake police car. The reality was the children were in no danger – in fact, they missed an opportunity to ride with some of the nicest and funniest people I’ve met in years. But their instinctual response, I’m sure ingrained through both experience and stories about the police, have trained them to automatically mistrust and run.
I believe mistrust and racism are taught to children through the reactions of adults – it’s not something we’re born with. I’m sure the kids in Bridgeport originally saw my hesitation and learned a little, just as they see their parents avoid law enforcement, and just as I saw my parents frown if black people moved into our neighborhood in Florida. Through our actions, we make the world a different, but not always better, place.
Where the Journey Takes You
I originally meant to write a light article chronicling how the ride went and relaying some of the fun stories, but I started with the story of the kids, and this is where the article took me. It got me thinking: I have to force myself to find more diversity in life, and find a way to separate mistrust that is prudent from mistrust that is based solely on racial or economic characteristics.
So once I finish up with the current charity commitments I have (training and fund-raising for Team Continuum), I’d like to try something that forces me to get out more in the community, and meet people who are leading wholly different lives from me.
I’m looking for suggestions, and would appreciate your input. If you have ideas for things or organizations to look into in the New York area, I’d love to know. Please either e-mail me at aclarke (at) abclarke.com or leave a comment here.
Thanks for reading my ramblings. By the way, here are some photos from the ride.
(1) As most readers know, I was riding 180 miles from Manhattan to Providence, RI this weekend to raise money for the Jack Brown Appeal.