Biking While Black Is a Crime

Huffing home on her green beach cruiser, Lekeithra Smith was already edgy about what might be hunkered down in the dark, waiting. It was near 9:30 p.m. in late April 2011. The 22-year-old was pedaling just a few feet behind her high-school-aged cousin Deadra, coming back from a party at their aunt's house. Both were stuffed from plates of food and feeling the late hour.

They rode through a knot of residential streets behind Sunrise Boulevard businesses — all razor-fenced lots, oil-slicked loading areas, and dumpsters. Except for smudged yellow light spilling from the occasional street lamp, the neighborhood was dark. Neither knew the area. But hey, at least they were on bikes, Smith figured, and could speed away if someone bolted from the shadows.

Suddenly, Smith's eyelids crashed shut against a burst of light. Up ahead, about a half-dozen Fort Lauderdale police officers were swinging flashlights her way.

The young women were ordered off their bikes and questioned about where they were heading. One officer asked Smith if her bike was registered with the city, she remembers. "I don't know nothing about no bike being registered," she says she told them. "I ride my bike to work all the time."

Because it wasn't registered, the bike would be impounded, she was told. Smith, a black woman with thin haywire dreads and an eyebrow stud, threw up her defenses.

"Why are you taking my bike? It's not stolen," she said. She had the receipt back home, she explained, and her record was clean; she had a good job stacking merchandise at Winn-Dixie.

But the arguments didn't dent the officer's indifference. Police confiscated her bicycle and wrote a citation. "The cited individual is a resident of the city of Fort Lauderdale," the document read in simple policespeak. "The cited individual failed to register bicycle."

Smith was shocked. "I could get kidnapped or something. Anything can happen to either one of us because we're girls," an agitated Smith remembers warning the cops. "What if I come up missing on the same night that y'all took my bike? It will look bad on your behalf."

Smith spiked her cell phone against the pavement, then stomped home safely. Two years later, she is still angry. "Y'all taking my bike, but y'all not taking me back home," she says today. "I had to walk the streets at night."

If you're black in Fort Lauderdale, a bike ride might be the easiest way to land a run-in with police. A seemingly benign city law requiring registration of bicycles is — in practice — almost as racist as the NYPD's "stop and frisk" tactics. Of the nearly 460 citations handed out in the past three years in Fort Lauderdale, 86 percent went to African-Americans. Almost none were handed out in white neighborhoods east of Federal Highway. Indeed, more bikes are registered to blacks than to whites — 63 percent to 37 percent.

Critics see a pattern of racial profiling in those stats. They claim cops are stopping blacks on the pretense of doing a bike registration check and then using that to look for other crimes.

"That is selective enforcement and racial profiling," says Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. "It is illegal, it is unconstitutional, and it is also immoral."

"They do it every day," Sammie Lee Harris growls around a burning Newport. "There ain't a guy riding a bicycle that hasn't been stopped at one point or another."

All around Harris, the daily afternoon ritual at Delevoe Park is rolling along as usual. On the grassy stretch just off Sistrunk Boulevard, more than 30 people are filling up picnic benches. Brown-bagged tall boys are being tipped, and a light breeze tosses around the smell of one-buck cigars. LeVert's "(Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Mind" flows from huge stereo speakers mounted on the back of a Ford Explorer. Outside of a lone visitor, everyone in the park is black.

Harris, dapper head to foot in a loose polo, snow-white cargo shorts, and fedora, is agitated. Although he's hauling a criminal record that includes a robbery charge and a string of cocaine and marijuana possessions, the Pompano Beach resident has stayed out of trouble since 2009. Last November, he was pedaling his bike down Sistrunk, the main drag through Fort Lauderdale's historically black neighborhood, when police hassled him about registration. He wasn't a city resident, and according to the law, "registration is optional for out-of-city residents who ride their bicycles within the city." Still, Simmons says the police used the opportunity to run his name through the system and arrested him on suspicion of a warrant. He later was released without any charges.

"What do you need my ID for? Why are you asking me about the last time I was arrested?" Simmons barks, remembering his argument with the cops. "Why do you want to go through all these little procedures about a bike?"