As if we needed any evidence that all people, whether Far Right extremists or self-described liberal progressives, can be guilty of racism.
Last week, a local Portland-based
cycling ”tactical urbanists” group launched a weekly group ride bicycle-based “fight against auto-centric infrastructure” that they called “Veloprovo“. The ride was designed to tour Portland streets that the organizers deemed “complete” and designed to accommodate bicycles, and to also “challenge the ‘tyranny of pollution‘ that the ‘capitalist automobile’ has wrought upon urban space”, while also planting broccoli shoots and sunflower seeds on the side of the freeway as “an act of rebellion”.
I shit you not.
Whatever happened to just meeting a group of friends at the local bike shop and riding down the shoreline just for the fun of it?
(Aside: I actually agree with the sentiment of Veloprovo. I’m an occasional cyclist who also finds the design of urban streets baffling when it comes to sharing the road between bikes and cars. I just find the left-wing pretension of this “advocacy” really eye-rollingly dumb. Planting seeds is not a rebellious act. It’s gardening.)
Anyways, in Veloprovo’s original write-up about their inaugural ride, ride organizers posted a photo of an Asian man who joined the group. This man was unknown to the organizers, and stood out to them, presumably because he looked different?
How different, you ask? Well, he was wearing a LiveStrong t-shirt, and according to other attendees, “he had all brand new “stereotypical biker gear,” didn’t speak with anyone and was filming everything.” And, oh yeah, he’s Asian.
Clearly, he doesn’t fit in, right?
Organizers went on to wildly speculate that this Asian gentleman was actually a local, prominent police captain named Chris Uehara, who was an undercover infiltrator secretly monitoring the groups activities, which was proof to participants that Portland is a “police state”.
The only resemblance between Uehara and the LiveStrong man? They are both stocky Asian men.
This shit is racist.
Why? Because here are a few incredibly asinine assumptions that have to be made in a person’s mind in order to conclude that this unknown person must be the local police captain:
- This Asian man doesn’t belong at your ride.
- This Asian man must be up to no good.
- All Asian people look the same.
- There’s only one stocky Asian man in all of Portland, and he’s the police captain.
- Police captains in Portland have the time and/or the desire show up undercover at your local “anarchist” bike ride in order to keep tabs on you and your group.
And seriously, thinking any one of the above five things is enough to get a pretty big “fuck you”. But all five and simultaneously?
Of course, there’s absolutely no way that the LiveStrong man was perhaps some random Asian dude who went out on this local group ride because it was, y’know, a public group ride. Perhaps he was new to the area and looking to make some friends while seeing the sights? Perhaps he had recently just sold his car and purchased a brand-new bike and associated gear in order to get around the relatively bike-friendly city that is Portland, Oregon while being a little more active? Perhaps he didn’t talk to other people because he arrived at the group and immediately realized he wasn’t dressed right? Or perhaps because he didn’t speak English very well and felt like taking time to warm up to the group? Or, perhaps because he felt a little uncomfortable because everyone around him thought he was a fucking undercover cop?
In short, the average person, armed with basic critical thinking skills, and who is not a racist douchebag* (see below) would realize that the Livestrong man was not Captain Chris Uehara.
But, of course, Maus writes:
The man in these photos appears to be the same man wearing a PPB uniform and identified as Cpt. Chris Uehara in a Portland Public Schools video from September 2012. Tracy Mattner was on the Veloprovo ride Sunday. She spoke to the man and is sure it’s Cpt. Uehara. “I spoke to Officer Uehara, who identified himself by his real first name, Chris.” she shared via email today. “He did not identify himself as an officer, but claimed to be a bicycle activist and enthusiast. When I asked how he heard about the event, he simply said he was at the “Tar Sands Ride.” Later, during group introductions, he stated that he had sold his car to buy the brand new bike he was riding.”
Another person on the ride, Nicholas Caleb, says having an undercover officer on the ride is a sign that we live in a “police state.” Caleb says the group has publicized everything they’ve done, held public meetings, videotaped their speeches, and so on. “You’d think when you do that, there’s no way you’d be the target of police surveillance.” “It’s scary,” he added, “But, we’re going to keep going forward with our positive ideas and creative energy.” Caleb said the man he suspects of being Cpt. Uehara was suspicious because he had all brand new “stereotypical biker gear,” didn’t speak with anyone and was filming everything. It’s worth remembering that the Portland Police has a history of secretly monitoring bicycle-based activism.
It turns out that days after Veloprovo posted their original article, local reporters from the Oregonian Janie Har and Helen Jung picked up the story and accused Veloprovo of racism. Jonathan Maus (who tweets at @BikePortland) unleashed a flurry of defensive tweets that first accused journalists of not knowing the context, and that then rationalize his conclusion by saying that people are “evolved to notice ppl that look different. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
I know. This is a level of stupid that amazes. But this story has a happy ending. Why? Because, it turns out that the self-important Jonathan Maus was oh-so-very-publicly wrong on this one. It turns out that the LiveStrong man named “Chris” who showed up at Veloprovo ride was not Captain Chris Uehara; he was Krisapon Chaisawat. Having recently moved from Key West, Kris is a 35 year old food server who doesn’t speak English too well (thus why he wasn’t very talkative during the group ride) and had joined the Veloprovo group to “meet people”.
He also seems randomly hilarious, based on his “About Me” on his Facebook profile:
1. I eat tacos with a fork.
2.I eat gummy bears by tearing them limb from limb and eating their heads last.
3.I cried when Spock died in Star Trek II
4.I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur.
5.If you asked me to tell you my favorite movie, I would have a hard time not saying Titanic
6.When I die, I want a steaming hot Reuben sandwich shoved in my mouth during the open-casket part of the funeral.
7.When I was little, I pretended my bike was a horse named Satan.
8.i’m single but it does mean im gay
(Aside: Kris, if you ever read this, I too cried when Spock died in Star Trek II, I too like the movie Titanic even if it’s horribly cliched to love it, I decapitate my gummy bears before I eat them, and I now really want to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would like to be a dinosaur.)
Kris’ wife (presumably an indication that #8 has been rectified) saw Maus’ Veloprovo post last week and urged her husband to contact the group and clear up the
Maus issued an embarrassed apology and has since posted an edited version of his original post without the finger-pointing and fear-mongering.
I regret the misunderstanding. I went with my gut because I felt the story was worth publishing with the information I had. However, I published it without 100% confirmation about the man’s identity. That was a mistake. When I published it, I didn’t fully respect or appreciate how it might make people feel if I was wrong. For that I am deeply sorry.
Maus has also offered to have Kris join them on future rides and to buy him a drink. Because, y’know, alcohol solves all of the world’s racism.
In the end, Maus is just happy to have “learned something” from this experience. Like, y’know, that not all Asians look the same. Or that, y’know, the police don’t care enough about your little “tactical urbanist” group of sunflower-planting cyclists to send the damned police captain undercover to spy on it.
Because, after all, we people of colour are just here to teach you these things. We aim to please.
Never mind that this all is stuff you should have already known.
If the thought of confronting Jonathan Maus and the other folks of Veloprovo over their racism brings you all sorts of indescribable glee, than you can comment on the Veloprovo apology page here, send an email or comment on the BikePortland forum here, or tweet Jonathan Maus @BikePortland here.
Update: Okay, so I’ve had a chance to read Jonathan Maus’ apology posts and his wrap-up of his meeting with Captain Chris Uehara. I also got a chance to read this post by Veloprovo participant Jess Hayden. And, I gotta say that I’m impressed. Maus and Hayden acknowledge their privilege and apologize unconditionally for their roles in this fiasco. While I cringe at the concept of boiling this all down to a “teachable moment”, it’s nice to see some of the folks involved chastise their fellow bloggers and commentors for trying to rationalize and justify what they acknowledge as a product of internalized racism. So, I take back the “douchebag” comments above; these folks are not douchebags, just misguided.
Let’s just not let this happen again, m’kay, guys?