In July 2008, I was in Atlanta trying to learn how to be an anthropologist of bicycling. Looking for clues, I went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, and I found myself overwhelmed by the power of Dr. King’s words. He summarized our American situation, argued for hope, and it all sang with truth. I stumbled around the exhibit, blinded by tears, knowing the horrible conclusion awaiting me at the end.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
I had of course heard Dr. King’s speeches before this, but I thought of him as a figure in history. I knew that Dr. King fought tirelessly to secure African American equality, but I didn’t understand that through this he sought to show us the connections between racial injustice and all injustice. A spiritual leader as well as a cosmopolitan intellectual, he drew on the ideas of Hegel and Gandhi and urged understanding between groups divided by hate and ignorance. His words hit me so hard on that day; they came alive and filled my heart.
Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now.
In 2008, I was just beginning to see the fight that lay before me as a bicycle advocate and researcher. I had a growing awareness of the cultural barriers to sustainable transportation in Southern California, the anger bicycling bodies stirred with our audacity to use public streets. But it was a stranger’s death that opened my eyes to a deeper level of disempowerment in bicycling. Near my hometown, San Juan Capistrano, on a night in October 2007, a young woman who was driving drunk hopped the curb in her car and struck José Umberto Barranco, who was riding home on the sidewalk late one night from his job in the kitchen at a Denny’s. This stretch of road had very infrequent bus service, once an hour and none late at night, and perhaps Barranco could not afford a car, so he commuted by bike. The Los Angeles Times reported that, “Barranco had planned to spend Christmas with his wife, 13-year-old son, and 8-year-old daughter in the central Mexican state of Morelos, family members said. He hadn’t seen them in nearly two years, they said.”