Saturday, May 27

Subcultural Sensitivity

Last night I joined up with the central LA critical mass ride. There were about 60 of us, including the always-fabulous sound system that turns our rolling conversation into a rolling saddle-dance party. After some tug-of-war at the front of the ride, we veered towards South Central, to visit the South Central Farm [or] and show support for the struggle happening there. [In (very) short, the Farm is the largest contiguous urban farm in the entire country. It has been producing for 13 years, and it supports 350 families of very low income, mostly recent immigrants. It is an irreplaceable resource for the 350 families, South Central, the city of Los Angeles . . . for the planet.]

For the last 3 years, the families and organizers have been applying themselves full-time to staving off eviction by the city after the city decided to sell the land out from under the farmers. Myriad paths have been traveled in an attempt to save the farm. As of a few days ago, what appeared to be the final path had ended up short and now the farmers are awaiting, in a hypervigilant state, the sirens of the police as they arrive to forcefully remove the farmers and allow the bulldozers onto the land to tear up their livelihoods/community/culture and replace it all with a large concrete warehouse.

Our ride through South Central residential streets was met with confusion, mostly, but also the cheering and clapping and reciprocated “peace” signs that we get from pedestrians and some motorists when we go the usual north or west direction from our starting point. In reality, the “confusion” I just ascribed to most who witnessed our passing last night was something more than that. Most people don’t know what critical mass is, so there is some confusion for people who see a very motley group of people NOT in racing clothes (for the most part), on bicycles and trailing a large sound system. We aren’t carrying signs or passing out xerocracy, lately, so there’s really no indication what we are riding for. In fact, that is our most commonly received question: “What are you all riding for??” My usual response: “Fun!”

While everyone has some confusion about us, the majority of folks we saw last night in South Central met us with suspicion. Like the farmers, the whole of the low-income people of color in this city (this nation) have reason to be suspect of unusual people entering their community. In short, their own hypervigilance begs, “are these people here to exploit us?” So the joy of sharing a different vision of a Friday night with the children who were running on the sidewalk, cheering at us, was sharply counterweighed by the squinted eyes and crossed arms of the weathered men in front of their humble homes and the momentary stress our large group with no obvious purpose caused them.

And so our mass birthed out of 41st street heading east, crossed the blue line tracks and took a sharp turn north on Long Beach Ave., past the main entrance to the farm as a whole line of activists were walking around the perimeter of the farm, holding candles and cheering at the vision of us flooding into the street and past them. We did a loop around the entire farm in the opposite direction of the marchers, and on the far side of the farm the people on watch with walkie-talkies took notice and quickly picked up their radios to report / get feedback on what all the people on bikes with a sound system was about. Hypervigilance.

As we rounded the bend back towards the main entrance, our cacophonous and blinking mass of cyborgs was in distinct juxtaposition to the tranquility of the quiet vegetables and the palpitating candlelight at the farm. Then, out of our group, came a loud “beeeoooooop!” police-car-imitating yelp originally meant to get the attention of motorists who might otherwise crush us, as cyclists, if they weren’t forced into attentiveness by the threat of a cop car in the vicinity. Most people have no idea about this sound, so any non-cyclist who witnesses it has nothing to conclude except that there is a cop car behind the mass of cyclists . . . or, in the case of THIS situation, if someone saw that it was, in fact, a cyclist’s mouth that made the sound, that the farmers’ hypervigilant state was being mocked. It’s like entering a sweatshop in downtown LA and yelling “La migra!” Insensitive, idiotic, or both. As the cop car imitation is now a greeting in the cycling community, another cyclist shot a loud “beeeeeooooooooop!!” back. I did what I could to quickly shut those people up, and I think no hard feelings were experienced by the farmers guarding the front gate, as they allowed us in. We all stayed for some amount of time, hearing the speakers, eating some food, touring the farm, enjoying the music, checking to see how Julia Butterfly Hill, up in the oldest tree at the farm and on her 11th day of a hunger strike, was doing.

The night was not ruined, but the issue arose: as a subculture in this city, we have a responsibility to be sensitive to other subcultures. We, of all people, should be able to identify with the vulnerability and concomitant hypervigilance that being in a subculture can cause. While a large group of our cyborg beings of flesh and bicycle steel might be considered threatening in some places, we’re usually roaming the city by ourselves, and, as such, we are vulnerable to the much larger and sometimes much faster-moving cyborgs known as people in cars. Whether we dwell on it or not, we are aware of our vulnerability. If someone behind us honks, we jump because we are in, even if we don’t know it, a hypervigilant state. If we hear a skidding car somewhere behind us, we think “oh SHIT . . .” because the car could be heading straight for us. It is ironic and appropriate that from this vulnerability was spawned the cop-car-imitation as a weapon against those that could harm us.

We are imitating a (multi-leveled) oppressor in order to manipulate another oppressor. And so our weapon was inadvertently turned last night, for a moment, against a sister subculture in this city: some recent immigrants of low income that are finding sustainable, culturally appropriate ways to exist.

It’s easy to be caught up in one’s own experience, regardless of who you are. This is a call to each of us, as members of some cultures and some subcultures and as over-privileged in some regards and under-privileged in others, to THINK . . . about those around us and their positionality and to be sensitive to such, particularly when they are inhabiting a more oppressed subculture than we can claim.

[This post cross-posted with Really Deep Thoughts and published on CICLE.]

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