Farzad Zamani: Why are we still calling cyclists hooligans?

A brief note on media coverage of an incident involving a group of young people riding their bicycles.

On December 20, 2016, a New Zealand media outlet reported on a ‘youth bike gang’ causing terror and chaos in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. My friend, local journalist Lillian Hanly, perfectly wrapped up the event and the reactions on social media:

Alternative frame for an over-sensationalised headline –

Awesomely talented kids biking around Auckland with their mates on back wheels only. Wheelies are all the rage at the moment with a number of young teenagers practicing and mastering the trick outside in the summer heat.

Whilst it could be considered dangerous as their routes take them onto the roads, attention is being drawn to the fact that Auckland roads are not very safe for cyclists. Numerous incidents occur on these roads every year, and the helmet-less kids are pointing out to everyone else that it takes more than wearing a helmet to be safe, it takes awareness from everybody.

What some have termed a ‘bike gang’ in an effort to delegitimise the group and encourage everyone else to be fearful of young kids from South Auckland, may indeed be our very own next top BMXers.

None of the kids were available for comment due to their dedication to the cause and their commitment to training for perfect technique. However, plenty of people who are unable to complete a decent wheelie were lining up to make a complaint and give their own two cents.

I noticed this precise account of Lillian’s could elicit a more radical and extensive analysis of the context:

On a daily basis, a large group of young, middle-aged and older people are terrorising the flesh and bones of many other people in Auckland – and almost any other city on the planet – causing chaos, traffic, depression, air and noise pollution, alongside other indirect consequences, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases and geopolitical wars for the purpose of accessing fossil fuel resources, and so on.

That is something that the contemporary citizen never reads in the media, as it is a direct attack on a political and economic system that we collectively rely on: the car industry. The root of this problem is in Fordism; explosive use of the car and the destruction of previous modes of transportation. It is an ideology dually obsessed with proximity while maintaining the segregation and isolation of communities within urban society. It is not even difficult to claim that Fordism has caused more damage to human life than wars, as it has become the force, cause and consequence of colonisation – not only of land, but also of life and spirit.

Anyone who has lived in Auckland and has some understanding of its history and urban fabric would laugh at the wording of the article’s original title:

Youth bike gang causing chaos on Auckland streets

It is a ridiculous title. In combination with the video footage featured in the article, it clearly frames ‘bike gangs’ of South Auckland in a fearmongering way, using demonising language to refer to ‘youth’ and playing on the concept of safety in a sensationalist way sadly typical of mainstream media. The language of the rest of the article is also problematic from multiple perspectives.

If I were to employ the same logic as the commercial news media, I can easily argue that we live in a time where our cities are permanently occupied by a large number of ‘car gangs’ driving through ‘urban’ areas at 50km per hour. None of these ‘gang’ members wear helmets. The two-tonne vehicles mostly carry only one individual, who is generally busy thinking, texting, eating, drinking, talking to the other passengers or yelling at non-gang members outside the vehicle. These car gangs cause thousands of deaths and injuries every single year. They forcefully tear cities and communities apart, with flattened asphalt roads, segregating societies into small and homogenised factions. This causes extreme social problems, including obesity, isolation and depression. Yet, this phenomenon is accepted as it is convenient to accept any social norms that are practiced for a long time, and people do not possess the desire to challenge the structural and systemic problems we ourselves cause. It could be a gender-binary educational system, or car-oriented cities. Indeed, we have a peculiar desire for damage, destruction, wars, inequality and cars.

“It is convenient to accept any social norms that are practiced for a long time, and people do not possess the desire to challenge the structural and systemic problems we ourselves cause.”

The above account illustrates the level of our idiocy and the contempt that we simultaneously enjoy and suffer from. Yet, we go further and demonise whoever puts their own body in danger to challenge those social norms. Of course, the ‘youth’ doing wheelies might have not intentionally acted to ‘resist’ or challenge the social norms of our city, however their act is ultimately one of resistance to the way we conceive cities, transportation and safety. Their act is just a symptom of a broken system, which needs to be understood not vilified.

One of the key elements in conceiving the act of this ‘youth gang’ as ‘terrorising’ is that they are not wearing helmets. Let us not even go into the implications of linking a majority Māori and Pacific population of South Auckland to chaos and terrorising behaviour. The issue of helmets is emphasised by the drivers and the police. The obsession with safety in Western societies has deep philosophical roots. Yet, the logic is strange. Cyclists are expected to wear a polycarbonate helmet to defend themselves from two tonnes of metal roaring around the streets of highly populated areas. The reason for this expectation is not really to protect the cyclist, but to protect the driver. Drivers see themselves as the decisive owners of the road. They do not want anything to disturb their comfort in a very selfish way. This does not need proof in modern society, as any pedestrian or cyclist can recall the times they faced agitated drivers who couldn’t wait 10 more seconds to race to the next traffic light. So, here, the problem is not the helmet, it is the protection of the driver and their private bubble, mentally, socially and physically.

“The obsession with safety in Western societies has deep philosophical roots. Yet, the logic is strange.”

I admit riding can be dangerous. But let it be. Protests and civil rights movements are too. Resistance against homophobia and sexism is painful. And the deaths of many cyclists in many cities around the world is also hard. As a cyclist, an urban researcher and activist I can confess that we proudly put our bodies in danger to make a point, even if it makes drivers uncomfortable (or as they say, we put their ‘safety’ in danger). Urban spaces were conceived to bring human beings and humanity together, so we can live collectively as social beings. They shouldn’t divide us into racially and economically segregated, distant suburbs connected with brutal, meaningless, violent highways and expressways. Cycling is a political act, to reclaim the city.

Farzad Zamani was born and raised in Iran, and completed a Master of Architecture at the University of Nottingham (UK). He is currently doing a PhD in Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland. See more from Farzad.