Black JoyRide reimagines historic Black resistance fight

Black August, the tradition to honor Black resistance each year in August, continues to inspire methods of resistance today including a gathering of 300-plus cyclists in Chicago to celebrate independence known as Black Joyride. 

“It really began after the deaths of people like George Jackson, who was a revolutionary Black freedom fighter, thinker and organizer within prison walls,” said Maya Finoh, an advocacy associate at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “He spent a large portion of his life behind bars, where he was radicalized and worked to raise the political consciousness of other prisoners.”

Jackson was assassinated by guards after an attempted escape from San Quentin Prison in August 1971. His death was one of the causes of the most well-known prison rebellions of the 20th century — the Attica Prison Uprising. 

United by a shared interest in ending dehumanizing treatment behind the walls of the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, more than 2,000 inmates rioted, attacked guards and acquired weapons to protect themselves, according to . Taking nearly 40 prison employee hostages, leaders put together a list of demands for better living conditions, more religious freedom and an end to mail censorship.  

“In our peaceful efforts to assemble in dissent as provided under this nation’s U.S. Constitution, we are in turn murdered, brutalized, and framed on various criminal charges because we seek the rights and privileges of all American People,” the Attica Liberation Faction’s “Manifesto of Demands” said. 

Unbearable living conditions and careless prison guards were commonplace for many prisoners of color, who over time started to believe they were political prisoners as opposed to criminals. Events like this became the catalyst for prisoner rights movements in the ’70s. And the outrage behind deaths of activists like Jackson in August 1971 became the catalyst of what we now know as Black August. 

“In commemoration of deaths like his, imprisoned folks began to see the month of August as a period of discipline, study and reflection,” Finoh said. “There was a lot of meditation and people engaged in a lot of physical and mental exercise.”

A New Resistance

The violence of the past two years, with the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, has also generated resistance, but now it is taking a different form. 

Shawnee Dez, a Chicago native, organized Black JoyRide as part of a healing process for the Black community following the murder of George Floyd. Its mission is to get as many Black people to go biking as possible. 

Creating power in numbers, the group rides in resistance to anti-Black violence while fostering a haven for Black mobility. 

“Considering the historical context of Black mobility in the U.S., having a Black body oftentimes limited one’s access to movement,” Dez said. “As someone who enjoys biking, I came up with the idea to make space for leisure and enjoyment for the Black community last year.” 

In 2020, the group held its first annual Juneteenth Black JoyRide. More than 300 bikers gathered in the center of Chicago and rode together all the way down to the South Side, passing the Monument to the Great Northern Migration and finishing at the DuSable Museum of African American History. 

Dez says the route is significant. 

“The point of using those landmarks was so intentional because they represented our history in this country but are placed in affluent, white neighborhoods,” Dez said. “We wanted everyone to know that we’re making space here to celebrate Blackness.”

While violent forms of resistance, like the methods commemorated during Black August, often take on a more forceful approach, Black JoyRide attempts a civil resistance. 

“We don’t experience any physical harm or violence in our method of resistance,” Dez said. “It may not be chaos but it is a constructive form of protest and gathering that pushes back on oppressive systems.”

The police attempted to marshal the group as they went along in their ride. But with their mission to amplify Black joy, they felt the ride would be better off without cops taking over or directing the event. 

Dez explained that the ride, for others, may seem like an act of violence because of the way they perceive large groups of Black people, but they were going to finish it anyway. 

Finoh applauds the Black JoyRide. 

“I think Black people taking up any space is powerful because so much of the violence towards us is to try and make us invisible,” Finoh said. “So, to me [Black JoyRide] is creating culture in service of something greater than you by allowing Black people to come to a consensus on what we’re fighting for.”

This past June, Black JoyRide held its second annual Juneteenth JoyRide with another successful turnout. In between its larger rides, the group also takes rides casually in smaller groups in members’ leisure time. 

Not only does Dez hope to increase mobility and independence of JoyRide’s members, but also to promote mental and physical health in the Black community. 

“In the future, I hope to organize joyrides in New York, Detroit, and California,” Dez said. “I would be down to do it anywhere people are willing to link arms and take up space.”

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