Bike license citations and 7 lessons in activism

Grabbed out of the crowd, LAPD gives bogus, frivolous, and spiteful citations to cyclists

It’s been a month since I broke the news that LAPD is still citing and cuffing of cyclists for not having a bike license.  By pressing from several angles we have achieved partial victory.  Three days after the incident Captain Eric Davis, commander of Wilshire Division (where the incident occured), sent this email to Glenn Bailey, President of the Bicycle Advisory Committee (excerpt, full email here):

With regards to the citations for no Bike License, the “No License” section has been canceled. And, in the spirit of the law the entire citation for the those two violators will be canceled.

Kudos to Davis for doing the right thing.

How did this come about, and what lessons can we draw from it as a piece of activism?  We can draw exactly 7 lessons, no more, no less!

Lesson #1: Do something.  As my cross country coach would say about the prom, and just about everything else, “if you don’t ask, she won’t go.”  If you don’t do anything, don’t expect to make any progress.  Fighting your ticket is not enough; defeating tickets will not stop unjust tickets in the future.

Alex Thompson in handcuffs

(Photo by Gary Kavanagh of Gary Rides Bikes)

Ever familiar with lesson #1 I went straight home from the incident, processed the photos, and posted about it.  Simultaneously, Gary Kavanagh posted his photos.  Then we contacted editors of major blogs in Los Angeles and pitched them the story.  By Tuesday the incident was making the rounds on LAist, Metblogs, Streetsblog and Green LA Girl and we were causing a ruckus on Twitter (Westsidazz Twitter, if you like AT’s bike stuff + music + cat photos + etc.)

Lesson #2: Make a fuss.  Don’t just post about it in one place, or go to one hearing – pursue multiple avenues.  One well known marketing principle is that if someone hears about a product from more than one source, they tend to remember it better.  The same is true for activism: if you make sure that people hear about a problem from more than one source, they’re more likely to take it seriously.

You can’t stop with media (you could call that Lesson #2.5), so Stephen Box, myself and Danny Jimenez went to the police commission hearing on Tuesday, March 24th.  I led by speaking about the incident, while displaying 8×12 photographs depicting the incident.  When I finished the President of the Police Commission let me know that the Inspector General, Andre Birotte, would like to meet with us afterward.  “Hell yeah I would” I thought, so we arranged a meeting with the Inspector General at his offices on Figueroa.

30 minutes later we found ourselves in the Office of the Inspector General.  One responsibility of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is to “audit, investigate and oversee the Police Department’s handling of complaints of misconduct by police officers and civilian employees.”  We couldn’t have landed in a better office.

A fuzzy picture of collective punishment.  LAPD gives bogus, frivolous, and spiteful citations to cyclists-March 21, 2009-FUN_4788

Lesson #3: Find the right people.  When you’re working with government, you’ll often find yourself complaining to people who can’t or won’t make changes.  While berating an immovable object can be good for riling up your constituents (a valid and important technique), it’s not going to get you anywhere ultimately.  If you can find people who have a professional capacity to make a difference, you’ll be a lot more successful.  In this case we got lucky with the OIG, but part of the game is recognizing luck, and turning it into opportunity.

The OIG staff helped us file a complaint about the incident.  Since the OIG oversees the process of resolving complaints, they have a professional incentive to handle it diligently and completely.  And they did.  The staffer who took our complaint was patient, complete, and insightful.  I’ve participated in the complaint process before by filing a complaint through the Watch Commander of Hollywood Division before, and it was dramatically different.  The officers investigating spent a lot of time defending their colleagues and trying to poke holes in my account.  Filing with the civilian employees charged with scrutinizing the complaint process was much better.

While we worked on the complaint, Inspector General expressed interest in the larger issues surrounding cyclists and law enforcement.  Now, I have seen activists so focused, or perhaps pressed for time, that they shut down discussions like that because they were off-topic.  It leaves my jaw on the floor every time.

Lesson #4: Roll with the opportunities.  Given an opportunity to converse with an official you normally would have no access to, you converse!  Converse like it’s your last conversing ever!  If you’ve got another appointment in 10 minutes, you ask to pause for 60 seconds, and you discretely cancel the other appointment.  If you get a big opportunity, flexibly redraw your priorities to Make It Happen.

We discussed.  It was a productive discussion – Mr Birotte is a sharp man – and I’ll leave it at that.

Writing a ticket

(Photo by Gary Kavanagh of Gary Rides Bikes)

Downstairs, Stephen and I discussed next steps, and Stephen suggested that I make the 22 mile round trip downtown again the next day to speak for 2 minutes at the Transportation Committee.  22 miles to talk for 2 minutes!!  Can I phone it in?

Lesson #5: Be tenacious.  You might say, “but you already did all that other stuff, that’s pretty tenacious.”  Not really – I was mad, and it’s not tenacious to work on something when you’re motivated.  Tenacity is pushing forward when you’re no longer motivated.  When Stephen suggested I make that trip again just to talk for 2 minutes, I thought about the Alex Thompson who went home and stayed up till 5 am working on photos and blogging, and I asked myself, “what would he want me to do?”  Even though I didn’t want to go, I knew he would have asked me to go, so I decided to ride to the Transportation Commt.   Institutions are fortified against change and adept at dissuading people from pushing for change.  Tenacity is necessary to drag them forward.

So I spoke at the Transportation Committee during public comment.  And I totally flubbed it.  I spoke for too long about unimportant things, and was left rushing my main points in with only 30 seconds left.  I kicked myself – I nailed the Police Commission comments, and then I blew it the next day.  Alex Thompson = FAIL!

Another arbitrarily chosen victim.  LAPD gives bogus, frivolous, and spiteful citations to cyclists-March 21, 2009-FUN_4790

While I was stuttering like an idiot, Glenn Bailey, newly appointed President of the Bicycle Advisory Committee was listening to the webcast.  He was shocked by what he heard, and he picked up the phone and called Captain Eric Davis, commander of Wilshire Division, and they discussed the issue.  The result?  After a series of emails with Glenn, Davis canceled the tickets and issued this statement.

Lesson #6: Sometimes just showing up is enough.  Many times I’ll speak or write about an issue, and someone will come up to me later and say “I never thought of that”, or “I didn’t know that happened.”  In this case Glenn hadn’t heard about the incident, and just by saying something, I informed him.  He had the power to make a difference and he did.

Being manhandled.  LAPD gives bogus, frivolous, and spiteful citations to cyclists-March 21, 2009-FUN_4808

I learned a lot from doing this, and I think there many more lessons to be learned.  The more I work in the bike community, the more I’m convinced that it’s not our energy or the infighting that hold us back.  It’s a lack of skill, and a lack of that kind of political power that comes from having been around for a while.  That’s no slam on hard working activists – it’s just that these things take a while.  If we keep learning about how to be effective, I think we can make change quickly.

More important than skill is having friends who will push you, work with you, and who have the resources to make a difference.  Danny, Gary Stephen, Glenn, and a number of bloggers all played a crucial role in moving this issue forward, and without any one of them we’d have achieved much less.  There might be such a thing as too many friends, but,

Lesson #7: There’s no such thing as too many good friends.

The 7 lessons one more time:

  1. Do something
  2. Make a fuss
  3. Find the right people
  4. Roll with the opportunities
  5. Be tenacious
  6. Sometimes just showing up is enough
  7. There’s no such thing as too many good friends

Alex Thompson

Bikerowave co-founder, Cyclists' Bill of Rights co-author, President of Bikeside, and Math Phd. HULK SMASH straight from Michigan!

14 thoughts on “Bike license citations and 7 lessons in activism

  1. Well said! The new “7 commandments”. Thanks for your hard work and all those 22 mile round trips. This is what it means to be a “citizen” not a “consumer”.

  2. Dammit…I forgot to tell you this. At the next T. Committee meeting I spoke at the end about your tickets getting canceled. This caused Parks to come over and relay his conversation with the officials who’s information you gave him, “the only officers who apparently never got the memo.” The “no-ticketing-for-bike-license” memo was sent around to all the district commanders again and to all officers of the Mid-Wilshire district.

  3. Great post Alex – all good points, the favorite for me today though, you can never have to many good friends :) but also like the point, if you have access/the ear of someone who you might not normally – totally take advantage of it. btw, yeah Earth DAy!

  4. Good job, Alex. Let us know what happens with the complaint that was filed with the Inspector General. Hopefully the cancellation of the tickets doesn’t stall their review of the complaint now.

  5. Thanks everybody.

    @Damien – I want to hear this report in person – sounds weird.

    @Rhode Bloch – let me help you with that.

    @yosi – yeah, Sean shared this on his links – so awesome to have someone like him backing you up.

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