Vigils and protests have followed the crash last Sunday that left 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves hospitalized in critical condition. Fellow riders say Gonsalves was struck by a Providence police vehicle while riding in a mass Ride Out. But officials contend that’s not clear and an investigation is ongoing. 

Riders say the incident points to their continued unfair treatment―alleging that the city is villainizing young men who are already marginalized, over-policing them, and confiscating their bikes without due process. Some say the negative narrative around Bike Life amounts to racism against Black and Brown men who see the riding community as a positive influence in their lives. 

Reporter Alex Nunes met up with a group of local riders to hear their perspective.

TRANSCRIPT:

NUNES: I wanted to meet some riders to hear their side of the story and their response to concerns about the safety of Ride Outs. So I worked with a contact to arrange a meeting. We decided on the parking lot outside Popeye’s Restaurant off of Reservoir Avenue in Providence. The riders were cautious, if not skeptical. The one who arrived first felt it necessary to photograph my media ID to send around to others as proof that it was really a journalist waiting for them. Some riders rode around the area at first, making sure there were no police waiting nearby. (In fact, one cruiser eventually pulled up.) As we talked, more riders arrived on mopeds and began doing wheelies and other tricks outside the parking lot on a road blocked off to traffic because of construction nearby. This is a condensed version of our conversation.

NUNES: [Speaking to riders] So we'll go around, you guys introduce yourself and just say how you got into riding.

KEY: I’m Key. I started riding, you know what I’m saying, all my peoples always had bikes, and I used to ride pedal bikes and stuff. And that was just my way out. Every time I had a stress, I’d just hop on my bike and go ride. 

MEL: My name is Mel. All my family's been riding since kids, and I picked up a scooter one time and just worked my way up to the big bikes. It's just, pick up a bike and you forget about everything you're going through. It's a relief. 

DAVE: Dave. I just got into bikes. I don’t know. My mom had passed. This is just a stress reliever, makes me feel free. 

JOSEPH: My name’s Joseph, and I've been riding since I was eight. And then I always just been into bikes. It was just always a way out. Freedom.

JEREMY: Yeah, my name is Jeremy Costa. I got into riding by being in the custody of the state as a foster child. When I was in residential schools at the age of 10, I learned how to, you know, put a carburetor together. I learned how to ride a bike when I was 10 years old in these residential schools. NUNES: So there's this narrative out there that you guys are menacing, that you're riding on the street, that you're doing dangerous stuff. You think you're misunderstood, that that's not the whole story. Tell me what you want people to know about you guys.

KEY: We’re not doing this to be bad people. We're doing this because this is what we love. It's a sport. It's a hobby. Like, it’s my lifestyle. It’s all I do. If I didn’t have my bike, I don't know where I'd be. That's what I'm saying. We trying to get people to put guns down and pick bikes up. We got people that ride with us from all types, sides of the city. They got beef with each other. They will kill each other if they weren’t on these bikes. But when we’re on the bikes, they’re not about that. We ride as a group.

DAVE: Hell, yeah. We all get together, we all ride. We just vibe. You know, one big family, one big family end of the day.

KEY: Even when we're not on bikes, we could call people in the bike life community and they got our backs no matter what. So I've met people in the last two years I've been riding, I never knew them from a hole in the wall, a hole on the wall. But these bikes have brought us together. 

NUNES: Do you feel like there's a double standard in terms of how you're policed?

COSTA: One hundred percent a double standard. There have been ride outs for Trump. There have been rides for Hell’s Angels, that they come in town, they block streets, they stop everything. And there's no policing. There's no ordinances that's specifically for them. 

NUNES: I think a lot of people listening would say that they're, you know, sympathetic to what you're saying, they hear where you're coming from. But when they hear about people riding in mass groups, when they see video of people doing wheelies up in the air, they think that it's dangerous. And that's just like an unavoidable fact. I mean, what do you say to people like that, who just find it dangerous?

JOSEPH: Why don't they give us a place to ride and do wheelies in? Instead of causing a big problem, they can just solve the problem and just create somewhere for us to just go and wheelie, a simple lot like this. That's all we need. 

KEY: So the thing is if they give us a spot to ride, it'd be a lot better. They can control the situation. But instead of controlling it, they're trying to let it go out and then just take us down while riding.

NUNES: Do you think some kind of park...? [Sound of riders arriving on mopeds] Are those guys you know?

KEY: Those are people we know, yeah.

DAVE: [Speaking to moped rider] Come here, bud.

KEY: How old are you?

RIDER: I'm 15.

KEY: The cops take your moped the other day?

RIDER: Yeah, bro.

KEY: Why they take your moped? What were you doing?

RIDER: Sitting there.

KEY: You were doing nothing!

NUNES: He's 15, you know, he's riding around on a scooter. 

JEREMY: It’s a street legal moped.

NUNES: For someone who's 15 to ride is my question?

JEREMY: Sixteen you can ride it.

NUNES: So he’s not the legal age to be riding it, is my point.

JEREMY: They don't know. [To rider] Yo, pull in, pull up. Don't worry about them.

KEY: He’s not doing nothing.

NUNES: You guys talking about the police car over there?

JEREMY: Yes, that's what we're talking about.

KEY: Because they're worried about him.

NUNES: Do you think they're here because of you guys?

JEREMY: Of course. They got called because they have a hotline number.

NUNES: So the police car just left. 

JEREMY: Yeah.

NUNES: So we got about four or five people on bikes now?

JEREMY: On legal mopeds. But they're still gonna jack you for your bike. They still won't even ask you for your registration. They'll grab you, throw you in the back of the cop car, and then they will take your bike without even asking any questions.NUNES: If someone's driving by here, you know, with their kids—you know, family driving—they see this kid doing that on the moped. You know, he's got his wheel in the air. I mean, it seems like they'd be pretty reasonably nervous about it. Do you see that point? 

KEY: I mean, some get nervous, but some don't. 

NUNES: But what would you say to someone like that if they're, like, legit nervous about seeing that?

KEY: I mean, I'll tell them, like, this is what we do. It's just like anything else. Like you'll go to practice basketball. You want to get good at shooting a three-pointer—you just keep shooting threes. You want to get good at wheelieing—you got to practice somewhere.

NUNES: How many guys we got here now on bikes, like seven or eight?

[VOICE OF MIC]: Yeah.

KEY: They have good talent. They should be noticed, not taken down. On the news media and the cops, they make us look so bad. So some people that don't see us, all they see is us on the news. So it's like, oh, yeah, "300 reckless bikers that were unregistered were driving through the city." Now you hear that, you’re like, “Damn.” When you see us in person, it’s like, “Wow, those guys are not that bad.” If you talk to us in person, we're not bad people.

JEREMY: Our Ride Outs are not just to come together. Our Ride Outs actually have a cause. The one we had here was to get people to vote. It was "When We All Vote." So it was a gathering of all the bikers to get them registered. The one before that we had a “Ride Out Racism.” We got 167 people to sign a petition at the event that we had. The one that we were going to do this time was supposed to be a Ride Out for cancer. He has a bracelet for it: “2020 Bike Life Cancer Ride Out.”

NUNES: So you do think that a good solution would be if you had some park somewhere where you could do this and not be on the street?

KEY: A nice strip.

JEREMY: In Providence.

KEY: And the thing is, I’ve seen a lot of stuff in other states where states have actually came to a conclusion with the Bike Life, because they're tired of it. They don't want to keep going at it with the Bike Life, because it's not gonna end. It's not gonna end. The more harder they take us down, the more harder the people are gonna come, because they're hurting our people. 

NUNES: All right, well, I would thank everyone for talking with me, but they've all kind of dispersed. So I guess I'll just thank you. 

JEREMY: Thank you, definitely. 

KEY: Thank you so much.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.