Naomi Doerner on How Street Safety Advocates Can Support Racial Justice

When a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, shot and killed Philando Castile earlier this month, the encounter began with a traffic stop. The stop fit a pattern: Castile had been pulled over many times before — 46 times in 13 years — but few of those citations were for dangerous driving. More prevalent were stops for minor issues like vehicle defects or misplaced license plates — the type of justifications that police are more likely to use when stopping black and Latino drivers throughout the country.

Naomi Doerner is a consultant who helps biking and walking organizations development social equity and racial justice plans. Photo: Bike Easy
Naomi Doerner helps biking and walking organizations development social equity and racial justice plans. Photo: Bike Easy

Street safety advocates often call on police to reform traffic enforcement practices in order to reduce dangerous driving that jeopardizes people walking and biking. Given the pervasiveness of racially discriminatory police work and the prevalence of police brutality in many communities, how should biking and walking advocates shape their strategies and messages?

Naomi Doerner, the former executive director of New Orleans’ advocacy organization Bike Easy, is a consultant who specializes in helping biking and walking advocates develop racial justice and social equity plans. She says advocates should be grappling with structural racism and considering how their own choices can entrench or dismantle it.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.

What’s a mistake some biking or walking organizations are making with regards to diversity?

I think that one of the things I see is hiring of people of color and then making them sort of the voice for diversity and equity, which are not the same thing.

It is great to hire the folks, to have the folks who do potentially have better understanding. Even if you had a staff that was diverse, if there’s not a co-created understanding of equity within your organization and how you’re contributing to it, it won’t succeed.

Participation and engagement with communities is one of the things people can do. If you want to engage communities that are different than your own, then it is important to go to those communities without an agenda and listen. Where and when authentic relationships form, if there are opportunities, it may not be about a bike lane. If you have access to funders, you have resources that you can bring to the table to really help contribute.

It’s a long process but I think that’s really what is needed: Helping communities to achieve the goals for themselves. And find the commonality.

What can individual advocates do to be more sensitive? 

The individual racism isn’t the actual issue. There are very few people that are going to be overtly racist. It’s the bias. It’s where and how it’s embedded into our institutions.

Each of us has a role in addressing institutional and systemic racism. It sounds really scary. It involves making a personal choice to get unstuck and find groups [editor’s note: Doerner recommends Race Forward or SURJ] and people who can support you in your personal growth. Whatever role you have, you can start to identify your privilege and seeing your privilege as a tool you can use to dismantle racism.

As a writer, you can use your role to address issues of systemic racism. As a planner, I can address systemic racism. In planning, any project is inherently going to create unforeseen byproducts and outcomes that can potentially be very detrimental to a community that you might not see.

Can you give an example of that?

I’m just going to use Vision Zero. A lot of people are talking about it. Vision Zero is a policy that was really adopted from a Swedish model and it was enacted at the country level, and its [goal is to] reduce fatalities to zero by [a certain] time frame. In the context of Sweden it has been seen as a success. There’s been a move to understand that in the United States. Now we’ve had a national campaign come here and it’s compelling. Vision Zero and the goal itself to reduce fatalities in a community — that’s what livable cities planners want.

It’s been very top-down for the most part, getting city and transportation agencies to adopt that at the ordinance level. It’s been a mostly top-down process where advocates have done this education of what it is. Legislators are happy to endorse it.

When you look at what is happening in communities of color in cities where we have this broken windows policing and you overlay this Vision Zero enforcement, there are concerns that it could lead to this kind of profiling or traffic stops.

What a lot of social justice and racial equity [advocates] are calling for is not just reform — what about community policing? If we’re going to be giving more investment to police enforcement, it has to be communities telling police how and where and what.

This particular Vision Zero analysis had not been done by the advocacy community. I think that a lot of that really does have to do with the fact that a lot of the organized bike and walk community are not comprised of people of color. There are a very high number of people of color who bike and walk. But generally, they’re not really helping shape policy or the campaigns.

It doesn’t mean that you throw out everything about Vision Zero. It just means we have to use analysis tools to figure out who could very well be negatively impacted and develop alternatives.

I read a blog post you wrote about growing up in an immigrant family. How does your background inform your work?

My mother is from Honduras and Central America. She had me at 21 and was a single mother until she got married. Being very young, I distinctly remember walking with my mom in the cold to the bus stop in Chicago and that’s how we got around. It was my mother’s way of really going up the ladder. [After] my mom married my dad — he was someone who was college educated — I didn’t take the bus. The communities I lived in were different.

My mother and I in those early years, that has always informed the work that I do. It’s really about prioritizing the needs that people have to live their lives and support their families.

  • Kevin Love

    Correctly implemented, Vision Zero is mostly about infrastructure. For example, about using concrete and steel protection to protect people from motor vehicle operators. The thing about concrete and steel is that these things really don’t care about anyone’s racial or ethnic origins.

  • AlexWithAK

    I agree that infrastructure is a big part Vision Zero. Creating safe spaces for people to walk and bike is one of the most effective way to increase those numbers and to organically get drivers to slow down and be more cautious, especially since the cops can’t be everywhere.

    That said, enforcement is very important at getting through to those whose dangerous driving persists even in the presence of that kind of infrastructure. It’s also important because changing the built environment across an entire city takes money, political will, and a lot of time. Camera enforcement is a key way to take any potential bias out of enforcement. Focusing on the most dangerous violations can also help. And I do think there’s a place for “broken windows” in traffic enforcement in terms of parking violations. Aggressively enforcing illegal parking in bike lanes, crosswalks, and on sidewalks sends a message that the police are watching by simply leaving a ticket on an empty, parked car.

  • Kevin Love

    Yes, this is true. And if the car is empty it is difficult to determine the racial or ethnic origins of the owner.

    However, once again, the best way is to simply engineer out the capability of illegal car parking in bike lanes, crosswalks and sidewalks. For example, look at this video of Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam. You may notice that the amount of illegal car parking is exactly zero. See:

    https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/jodenbreestraat-in-amsterdam-given-back-to-people/

  • Komanoff

    Good/timely interview. I want it to go further, esp’ly to report on policies/programs that have reduced crashes without relying on racially biased enforcement?

    Also, bravo Kevin Love’s link to the Amsterdam video (which appears far down in the linked post, i.e., after most of the text and pic’s).

  • RichLL

    Yes, it’s ridiculous to argue that traffic enforcement is racially discriminating, as the author tries to argue.

    What probably does vary by race is the response by the driver to the stop.

  • Joe Commuter

    I honestly don’t know any self-respecting safe streets advocate who actually calls for more enforcement. I only see it as throwing a bone to the anti-bike people who want bicyclists to behave better, but nobody who is serious about safe streets actually wants to see more enforcement, they want to see better infrastructure.

  • ubrayj02

    There really is no “safe space” to have an honest conversation about this angle in livable streets politics.

  • djx

    Within recreation-oriented cycling clubs where I live I read calls for more enforcement against cyclists going against traffic and against motorized bikes that delivery people use.

    But yeah, those people are not about street safety…..

  • djx
  • RichLL

    As already discussed, most times a cop cannot even see the race of the driver – they just see the bad behavior.

    So then it comes down to how the driver responds.

  • djx

    “As already discussed, most times a cop cannot even see the race of the driver”

    Police can see the race of drivers often enough for their to be measured differences nationally and in many places.

    “So then it comes down to how the driver responds.”
    Riiight. How many white people get shot reaching for their identification as directed by police?

    Please stop with denying racial differences in policing. Your lines may have been believable 20 years ago but we know much more now.

  • RichLL

    You have not proven your case. Imagine a cop car at the side of a highway. A vehicle drives by at high speed. Do you really think the cop even notices the race? No, the cop car responds to the behavior.

    Once the car is pulled over, what happens next is down to the behavior and response of the driver. And races may vary in how they respond, leading to different outcomes.

    but of course those who want to see racism everywhere, see it everywhere, whether it exists or not.

  • djx

    I offered stats. You’ve offered speculation.

    ” vehicle drives by at high speed.”

    People get pulled over all the time not at high speed. Even at 60mph, police can often see the race of drivers.

    “what happens next is down to the behavior and response of the driver.”

    No, it’s down to the behavior of both the driver and the police officer. We have empirical evidence that police view people of different races differently. Here is an example:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/07/data-police-racial-bias

    Even if you somehow think black people do something differently to deserve their different treatment at the hands of police, it’s beyond belief that you deny policing behavior plays any role.

    We can have a debate about how much the public vs how much the police play a role, but to suggest police are completely impartial and this is all down to the behavior of people being stopped is ludicrous and racist.Go crawl under your rock.

  • djx

    “but of course those who want to see racism everywhere, see it everywhere, whether it exists or not”

    It is profoundly racist to deny the existence of racism in policing, particularly traffic enforcement. I’m not taking everywhere, I’m talking about the subject at hand. It’s been documented and experienced over and over and over again.

  • BKBedStuy

    djx,

    Ignore the racist troll. This one doesn’t accept reality, there is no hope.

  • RichLL

    LOL, so if someone suggests that there is no racism involved in n incident, then that person is automatically racist?

    Can you see how utterly self-serving and intellectually bankrupt that claim is?

  • RichLL

    I saw no statistics and, anyway, such “studies” are typically performed by groups who want to find racism whether it exists or not.

    The main determinant of how such interactions go is how the driver behaves. Are they civil and co-operative? Or evasive and bitter? It makes a difference

  • RichLL

    So anyone who ever denies racism is a racist?

    Wow.

  • Jake

    According to you guys:
    Racist = anyone who doesn’t see everything through a racial lense of assumed victimhood
    Troll = anyone who goes against the narrative

  • BKBedStuy

    No, you have demonstrated a clear prejudice against people of color through your many, many comments. You refuse to see your privilege. You hide behind sanitized constructs that conveniently ignore the actual context of our current reality. You pass yourself off as “colorblind” when anyone with a brain can understand that this is a bullshit concept to avoid dealing with systemic racism that has benefited entitled, whiny children like yourself. That is why you are a racist. The world and this blog doesn’t need your voice, doesn’t need your hate, and doesn’t need your constant petulant trolling. Move on.

  • infinitebuffalo

    I think it depends on where you are.

    Pittsburgh is strong in vehicular cyclists, who don’t believe in separate infrastructure, in part because what we do have has been done pretty poorly. So a lot of them–and I don’t know that they’re particularly numerous, but they’re particularly vocal–don’t want bike lanes, surely don’t want cycletracks, they just want driver education and enforcement of traffic law.

    I do think it’s also important to distinguish between wanting actually dangerous drivers who are speeding, weaving, texting, or otherwise posing an honest risk to other road users, and this bullshit ‘broken-windows’/nonexistent-broken-taillight type stuff that Castile was pulled over for, much like NYC riders in my feeds want police to stop flagging down cyclists with earbuds and instead focus on the drivers parked in the bike lanes…

  • RichLL

    Exactly. It’s impossible to have a discussion about race in America because anyone who takes the view that X is not a racist immediately gets called a racist.

    As for the word “troll” use of that usually indicates that the utterer knows that he has lost the debate.

  • RichLL

    You’re wrong. I simply pointed out that in many cases a cop stops a vehicle before even seeing what race the driver is. So the idea that a cop stops a car because of the race of the driver is nonsense.

    Once the vehicle is stopped, the way things proceed is then down to the co-operation and bahavior of the driver.

    And yes, I am color-blind although I prefer the term post-racial.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    “I simply pointed out that in many cases a cop stops a vehicle before even seeing what race the driver is. So the idea that a cop stops a car because of the race of the driver is nonsense.”

    Your first sentence says “in many cases” – I don’t think anyone denies that there are in fact many cases in which traffic stops are initially made in ways that have no relation to the race of the driver.

    However, your second sentence then seems to suggest that it’s “nonsense” to suggest that race *ever* plays a role.

    It may be true that there are some classes of police enforcement that really are unaffected by race. However, the sort of thing that is most relevant for Vision Zero is enforcement of violations in congested urban environments, where the race of the driver is most likely to be visible.

    No one is alleging that every police action is directly shaped by conscious awareness of the race of the person being stopped. But if you don’t recognize that some police actions are sometimes shaped by subconscious associations of danger with the look of a driver, then you’re completely missing the point.

  • calwatch

    While there may not be racial profiling (especially for night stops – it’s virtually impossible to see the driver’s race in the dark) cops most certainly profile by vehicles. Any kid who drove a stereotypical “rice rocket” or sports car knew they were more likely to get pulled over than if they were driving a frumpy 10 year old SUV.

  • spijim

    “Riiight. How many white people get shot reaching for their identification as directed by police?”

    Let’s be clear, it’s not “people” being shot by police. It’s men. And it happens twice as often to white men as it happens to black men. Just because it’s not in your twitter feed doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. None of them are particularly difficult to find online should you be interested.

  • neroden

    As is repeatedly documented, you can build infrastructure, but if there are cars driving down the bike lanes — or even down the sidewalk — you need enforcement.

    Sadly, the cops seem to be the worst offenders. Cops need to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned when they park in bike lanes or on sidewalks. Period.

  • Let’s Tell The Truth on Prop 1

    The police should be vigorously enforcing the law to the limits of their ability and time. That enforcement should be applied to violators regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, creed, color or country of orgin. To do anything else is to create a biased application of the law that picks winners and losers. True justice is the guilty being punished for their behavior.

    If a certain group violates the law to a higher degree and is over represented in the system, it’s a clue to deeper societal/cultural issues where the work needs to be done. Until we come to grips with reality and end the denial and excuses, there will be problems and percieved persecution of certain segments of our society.

  • O07698

    The problem is when there is no equality in enforcement. When you do very little enforcement with one group, and you do extreme excessive inforcement with another. When enforcement with one group means that you get stopped for everything possible – including minor things like a cracked window on the car passenger side, which then leads to a witch-hunt interrogation. And another group is only stopped or detained by law enforcement when the most heinous act is done. There is no justice when you selectively “vigorously” enforce the law.

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