Biking While Black Is a Crime

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A hundred yards up the pavement, a beefy Caucasian man in a safari hat is getting ready to push off on his bicycle. He shakes his head and rubs a hand across his sweaty face, missing a gob of suntan lotion smeared above his lip. As a longtime Fort Lauderdale resident, the registration law is breaking news to him. "And I've had over ten bikes here," he says.

A young dude in his 20s, sporting a red tank top and workout shorts, stretches out after chaining his bike to a nearby tree. "It sounds like something I would be interested in signing up for," he says earnestly. "Do you know how I can sign up?"

A white man in a neon shirt, catching his breath after a ride, noticeably tenses when informed that he could lose his unregistered fiberglass two-wheel beauty to police since it's not registered.

"Why? This bike isn't stolen or anything," he says, steamed anyone would suspect otherwise. "Why would I have to register it?"

Dr. Lorie Fridell, an associate professor at the University of South Florida's Department of Criminology, who wrote a 500-page book on racial profiling, says disparities in statistics can lead to various interpretations.

"Men are arrested more than women, low-income people are arrested more than high income, young people more than elderly people. Those are disparities, but that doesn't necessarily imply police bias." Still, the Fort Lauderdale PD numbers on bike citations "certainly raise my concerns," Fridell says.

She says police are using the bike ordinance as "pretext stops" — using probable cause for one violation as a pretext to investigate a separate crime. According to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision titled Whren v. United States, law enforcement is free to conduct such stops — but not when race is the motivating factor, she says.

"The information that black drug dealers sometimes use bikes is not enough to justify targeting blacks on bikes," Fridell says. "So there's the possibility here that the officers are using these bike stops as a pretext to investigate drug crimes, and they are using race in making their decisions, which would violate the Whren v. U.S. decision and thus the Constitution."

Patrick Muhammad is down front in the audience, waiting for his opening. Nearly every hard metal chair in the indoor meeting space at Carter Park on Sunrise Boulevard is filled, an unusual turnout for the monthly community get-together held by City Commissioner Bobby Dubose. Everyone who speaks is greeted with serious nods and hearty "amens."

Muhammad is lank and lean, draped in black pants and matching tunic with red shoulder lapels, the uniform of the Nation of Islam. He's here hoping to whip up some ire over the bike ordinance; if he can find enough wronged riders, he intends to file a class-action lawsuit against the department.

But the audience is cranked up over a different matter: the newly created Flagler Village, a yuppie enclave across the train tracks that has decided not to extend the name "Sistrunk Boulevard" to its leg of Sixth Street. The name — an homage to Broward's first black physician, Dr. James Sistrunk — is a point of pride for the people in the room. The representatives from Flagler Village, however, say the name today is associated with drugs and crime.

It's racism, some say. "I remember when Fort Lauderdale was one of the most racist cities in the country, if not the most racist," says one wrinkled black man. "And we're not that far removed from that. When the rubber hits the road, we've got to do it, we've got to step up and raise hell and throw rocks — not physically."

Muhammad was raised in Ocala and Fort Lauderdale; as a young man, he lived the fast life — drugs, guns, and shoeboxes of cash under the bed. Short jail stints for accessory after the fact in a shooting and dealing in stolen property slowed his rise as a street hustler. He bagged the thug life altogether in 1993, he says, when he joined the Nation of Islam. He now owns a car-detailing business but still goes door-to-door to recruit followers.

When Muhammad first read about the bicycle law, it hit a familiar note. "I know the history of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, and I know growing up in that area that we've always had a problem with treatment from the police," he says. "They've always done things to make life harder on us. This bicycle law is just another way they could get to us." Muhammad never got a turn to speak at the meeting. But on his own, outside of the Nation of Islam, he's been meeting with community leaders. He'd like the city to be more proactive in registering bicycles. He's also begun tentatively to round up plaintiffs for a possible lawsuit. Whether the bike ordinance stands or falls depends on whether it's challenged.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson