Accosted, Detained for Taking Pics of Bike Racks

Heard of "Driving While Black" or "Biking While Black"? "Photographing While Black" is also a thing

Kenya Wheeler, SFMTA planner and head of the Oakland BPAC, back at the spot where he was detained and threatened for taking pics of yarn-wrapped bike racks. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Kenya Wheeler, SFMTA planner and head of the Oakland BPAC, back at the spot where he was detained and threatened for taking pics of yarn-wrapped bike racks. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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Kenya Wheeler, SFMTA planner and head of the Oakland Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, was returning home from a yoga class Wednesday evening, enjoying the walk through the new apartment developments between 23rd and 24th on Valdez in uptown Oakland. He noticed something about the street’s new bike racks. “I stopped to take a few photos of the bike racks covered with yarn (aka yarn-bombs) and continued walking up the street, admiring and photographing each set of bike racks,” he wrote in a post on social media. “As I was taking pictures of the last set of yarn-bombed bike racks, a security guard who had walked passed me earlier on the block rushed up to me.”

Here’s the rest of what happened from his post:

He asked me what I was doing on the street and if I lived here. I told him I was taking photos of the bike racks adorned with yarn and that I lived in Oakland nearby. The security guard responded that he saw me taking photos of cars and asked me why I was doing that. I responded again saying that I was taking photos of the bike rack and was met with the response that “I don’t believe you and you are going to have to wait for the police” and go to his radio to call someone else. When I told him that I was going to leave, the security guard physically blocked my path of travel, said that I could not leave until the Police arrived.

When a second security guard arrived, I was shocked as I turned toward him to see that he had drawn his firearm as he was approaching me. I only had a my smartphone and my umbrella in my hand. He did holster his weapon after a few tense seconds and when I asked what he was doing he also said I had to wait here for the police. I asked both guards if they were detaining me on a public street, but the second guard had limited English skills and also said I would need to wait for the police. Given that he pulled a weapon on me, I did not feel safe in exercising my rights to leave and stayed even though I felt it was a false detention as these were not peace officers and I had committed no crime. I was held for at least 20 minutes until OPD arrived.

I called OPD dispatch, and a great dispatcher stayed on the line with me until OPD arrived. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably 15 minutes, two OPD officers who came and very professionally resolved the issue with the security guards and myself. When OPD arrived, so did the Jasmine, the business manager of the Alexan Webster (the new apartment building that spans the block of Webster and Valdez Street). She came over and apologized to me, saying that they have had some break-ins and that their security guards were being more aggressive about safety threats. The guards did not apologize or speak to me. While I can understand the need to be vigilant, I didn’t pose any threat to the building or neighboring property and the way I was treated extremely inappropriate – from what seems to be an unlawful detention on a public street to drawing a weapon on me. I shudder to think what could have happened if someone wasn’t as calm and collected as I was in this outrageous situation with these hot-headed security guards. This kind of behavior is not tolerable and I think action needs to be taken by this developer, property manager and the City of Oakland to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

KTVU, in its story about the incident, reports that the security company has been fired. “They were let go because they confronted someone on a public sidewalk when there was no reason to confront him at all,” wrote a spokesperson for the Alexan Webster, via the KTVU story.

In an interview this morning, Wheeler told Streetsblog that, despite the incident, he’s delighted by the new housing developments, which stand where once there were auto-service shops and parking lots, all close to transit and some of the Bay Area’s newest and best bike infrastructure. “It’s all really exciting stuff… to have developer-supported, mixed-income development in this area, leveraging publicly owned land and joint-use parking,” he told Streetsblog. He helped develop the original plan for the area. “It’s all the right things you’d want to see in a new community.”

Also from Wheeler’s post:

I worked intensively on the land use plan for this area (Broadway/Valdez Specific Plan) when I was at BART, from drafting the application for OBAG [One Bay Area Grant] funding with City of Oakland staff to serving as the BART rep on the planning efforts with the City Project Manager Kerry Jo Ricketts. I’m also the Chair of the Oakland Bicyclists and Pedestrian Advisory Commission and we have made safety for all Oaklanders a critical topic for our commission. I am going to make sure this issue of private policing of public space is addressed by our commission and the City Council and Mayor’s Office.

He’s already gotten the attention of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf:

During his talk with Streetsblog, Wheeler returned to the area for the first time since the incident, which has left him shaken. He worries for people of color and their ability to do something as simple as walk down the street while feeling (and being) safe.

“I’m a little traumatized… realized this is right where it happened, I feel a little bit of unease even being in the area. A little bit of sadness,” he said, looking again at the yarn-bombed bike racks. “We need security that reflects the values of the communities they’re securing.”

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