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OpEdge: Bicycling While Black

Marc Jampole
August 11, 2015

by Marc Jampole

BikeUNEQUAL TREATMENT of African-Americans by Tampa police has not received much national publicity, probably because, unlike Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Waller County and Arlington, Texas, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and elsewhere, there have been no reported killings in Tampa. But the situation in Tampa symbolizes how deeply racism has infected the criminal justice system across the United States.

Tampa police have issued more than 2,500 tickets to bicycle riders over the past three years, more tickets for bicycle infractions than were written in Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, and St. Petersburg combined. And who are all these hell-on-two-wheel menaces to the road who seem to congregate on Tampa streets? Funny (no not funny, sad and absurd!) — 80 percent of the bicycle scofflaws in Tampa are African-American, despite the fact that blacks only represent 25 percent of the city’s population. A recent National Public Radio report on the Tampa police says that some residents complain of being stopped on the bicycles multiple times a day.

Evidently in Tampa, BWB (bicycling while black) has joined DWB (driving while black) as a crime.

These facts produce, as the Latins used to say, “Res ipsa loquitor,” a thing that proves itself. The obvious conclusion in this case is that the Tampa police are going out of their way to give tickets to African-American bicyclists. Tampa police are engaged in an organized effort to discriminate against one group — to stop that group more often for trivial offenses and to write up those offenses more frequently. Keep in mind that almost by definition, an infraction on a bicycle is minor, because there isn’t much damage bicyclists can do to anyone but themselves. Tampa thus joins Ferguson and hundreds of other municipalities across the country to kill two birds with one stone: raise revenues and harass minorities.

Some may say that in the context of police killings elsewhere, Tampa’s obvious discrimination against African-American bicyclists is trivial. But the very triviality of it is what I find so offensive, and so indicative of how deep and widespread the poisonous roots of racism have burrowed in this country.

Not only do we — meaning the criminal justice system — stop African-Americans disproportionately more often in crime prevention efforts, not only do more routine stops escalate into police violence against innocent African-Americans, not only are more African-Americans charged for the same or similar crimes as whites, not only do we assess larger bail amounts on African-Americans, not only do they receive harsher penalties when convicted, not only do more African-Americans get caught in criminal justice labyrinths that have them jailed for months and years because they can’t make bail — not only does our justice system treat African-Americans so poorly in so many ways, but we do it not only for serious crimes like murder and armed robbery, but for trivialities like not having a bicycle registration or forgetting to make a right-hand turn signal.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.