“The world needs more Najaris”
on September 28, 2020
Najari Smith spent two nights in jail for “biking while Black.”
In 2018, Smith was leading a caravan of Richmond’s youth on bikes through the city and into Oakland for a First Fridays event when he felt the glare of police headlights. Suddenly, a police officer grabbed the front handlebars of his bike and he jerked to a stop.
In Richmond, cyclists were stereotyped into one of two categories, Smith said: “One extreme was that it was only for affluent folks that were riding $5,000 bikes on the weekends … And then on the other side of the spectrum, it was people who rode bikes were impoverished and couldn’t afford a car and were drug dealers.”
At that First Fridays event, Smith was arrested for playing music too loudly. This wasn’t the first time Smith has been stopped on a bike by police. But this time, 30 young community members watched as Smith’s “rights were violated”, he said.
Smith wanted to show the community that they can resist the “abusive relationship” between police and community members. He filed a civil rights case with the city, which was settled out of court.
“This was the one time that I decided to fight back. It was a culmination of getting punched and punched and punched,” Smith said. “I’ve done too much community work to not fight back on this one.”
Smith founded the not-for-profit bicycle advocacy organization Rich City Rides in 2012 to boost community mental and physical health, challenge biking stereotypes, and bring a diverse group of residents together through the shared appreciation of their city.
Now, Rich City Rides has expanded to include a bicycle shop co-op, youth bicycle groups, and bike repair clinics.
“Everyone in Richmond knows what Rich City Rides is,” life–long Richmond resident and Rich City Rides photographer Robin Lopez said. “It’s all about developing a sense of pride in where we reside.”
Smith’s commitment to improving community health and making public resources more accessible has proven key to not only Rich City Rides’ growth, but resilience.
When Rich City Rides suspended all of their signature events in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, that didn’t stop Smith from finding a way to support the community.
Smith and Rich City Rides partnered with local high schools in order to set up grab and go meal stations where folks with children at home could pick up a bag of food. By August, Rich City Rides had handed out over 40,000 meals. Though they’ve had to halt their community bike rides, they’ve donated 140 bikes to Richmond’s youth.
“One of the major powers of Rich City Rides is that it’s not just me. It’s the whole community coming together and getting familiar with each other,” Smith said. “If we were just a bicycle organization strictly we would not be giving out meals during COVID.”
(Lead Photo: Smith and local youth discuss his upcoming run for City Council. Credit: Robin Lopez/Shots From Richmond)
Editor’s Note: Smith is among the candidates running for Richmond City Council in the 5th District. For more information on the race and other candidates, see the official webpage for the race here.
To get involved with Rich City Rides, head over to the group’s website and fill out a volunteer application form here.
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