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The Austin Peace Ride puts “eyes and feet on the street” to promote safety and positivity

9:07 PM CDT on September 22, 2020

Equiticity’s Oboi Reed speaks before the ride. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

There's a growing movement in Chicago towards large group bike rides in Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides with the goal of promoting public safety, wellness, and community unity. The Austin Peace Ride, which took place on Saturday morning in gorgeous weather, was a great example of that phenomenon.

About 60 riders gathered at the BUILD campus on the corner of Laramie and Harrison. BUILD, a gang intervention, violence prevention, and youth development organization, and Equiticity, a mobility justice nonprofit, teamed up to host the seven-mile slow roll through the side streets, main roads, and parks on the West Side. Divvy, the city's bike-share system, provided free loaner bikes for anyone who needed one.

Before the ride, Equiticity leader Olatunji Oboi Reed spoke passionately about the power of recurring community activities to transform the streets. “The purpose of the ride is to instill peace and unity in Austin,” he said. “There’s research -- academic, peer-reviewed research -- that shows the power of community rituals. A community ritual is an event open to the public that happens on a regular rhythm. It could be annual, monthly, weekly; the idea is that people know when it is, and they come out on whatever that rhythm is. And by doing that, they start to see people each time, they develop friendships, more trust, more cohesion, more efficacy, and the research shows that has an impact on reducing violence."

The ride in action. Image: Sharon Hoyer
The ride in action. Image: Sharon Hoyer
The ride in action. Image: Sharon Hoyer

When that happens, Reed said, more people are willing to walk and bike in their neighborhood. "And when more people are walking and biking and shopping in our neighborhood, our streets are more vibrant. There are more eyes and feet on the street. And that’s how we’re able to suffocate violence. Violence can happen anywhere; it looks for the spaces where there are no people.”

Reed cofounded Slow Roll Chicago, an organization promoting cycling in underserved communities, which hosted rides starting and ending at the BUILD campus for years. Though Reed has since focused his energies on Equiticity and is no longer formally associated with Slow Roll, he collaborates with BUILD to keep the community rides happening on a regular rhythm.

Adam Alonso, CEO of BUILD, said the peace rides have a positive impact on bystanders as well. “The thing that has made this super cool is you don’t expect to see a group of riders in a neighborhood like this,” he said. “And every time we’ve done it people are clapping and waving, they love to see it. And maybe it runs contrary to what the media has taught us, to fear, ‘Oh my God! You’re gonna ride a bike in the neighborhood?’ This is exactly what you need to show: Everyday normal, fun activities that happen in other parts of the city are able to happen here. And unless you are one of the first to show it, the narrative will never shift and change."

“I would also [highlight] the physical effects of biking,” he added. “And when you think of the toll of trauma on the body -- this is a way to get the endorphins out. Talk about feeling great! It becomes infectious. The moment we ride by, people light up.”

Before the ride commenced, I spoke with Daryl Satcher, an attendee who teaches yoga classes and workshops with BUILD. Satcher, 43, lives in Oak Park but supports the Austin neighborhood by teaching youth in wellness programs that integrate physical wellbeing with the arts. When I asked what brought him out for the ride, Satcher said, “The world has lost its mind. We need to come together and shine our light brighter. White supremacy is more dangerous than the virus. The system is the problem, we are the vaccine.”

Riders were called together for a few simple instructions from Reed, and then we rolled out of the BUILD lot. It became immediately clear that Alonso was not exaggerating in the slightest about community reception. As we wove our way north and west, almost every pedestrian, every person on their porch, tending their lawn, or looking out their window beamed at the group and waved. One woman called out, “Morning, y’all! Wonderful!” and it was impossible not to smile back. Drivers gave friendly beeps and waited patiently at intersections for the mass of riders to pass. Participants waved and flashed peace signs. The good vibes were infectious.

The ride pauses to regroup. Photo: Sharon Hoyer
The ride pauses to regroup. Photo: Sharon Hoyer
The ride pauses to regroup. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

Youth also played an important role in the ride. Members of the North Lawndale-based youth boxing program Boxing Out Negativity, served as "corkers," stationing themselves at intersections to hold traffic while riders passed, then speeding ahead on the left to cork the streets ahead. Between the kids periodically zooming by, enthusiastic bystanders, riders making small talk, and the old school hip-hop and house music pouring from a speaker mounted on Reed’s cargo bike, the ride had a celebratory vibe.

Ronald Hall, an attendee and lifelong Austin resident, discussed the inspirational power of music for running and biking -- activities he does extensively through his neighborhood and around city. “Music opens up a dimension that don’t exist,” he said. “Where you think you can do about anything.” The 57-year-old Hall leads a group of older men on 30 to 40-mile rides around the city. “I have a path that takes us to Soldier Field. Then we go all the way to Lawrence, and get back at three or four in the morning. It’s a good little bike ride,” he said. Hall helped BUILD and Equiticity plan the route for Saturday’s ride.

A short break in Columbus Park. Photo: Sharon Hoyer
A short break in Columbus Park. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

We worked our way to Columbus Park, gliding past the golf course, then paused for about a half hour to converse and watch the ducks on the lagoon. The ride concluded with the short leg back to the BUILD headquarters for a group photo. The event was, as BUILD director of community engagement and strategic partnerships Juan Villalobos said, “a balm for the soul.”

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