This is one of the occasional posts where I share a column I wrote for French magazine, Café Racer and it is shared here with the kind permission of Café Racer's editor and owner, Bertrand. I wrote this on 4th June and it appears here unchanged. There is a reference to BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic), a phrase widely used in the UK (including by the BBC) but has also been questioned in recent months.
Image above: Norman Parkinson Limited/Corbis
Two days after #BlackOutTuesday and my mind is still fried. Since the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the UK (where I live) and the British government failed to deal with it as quickly or successfully as other countries I had tuned out of the news, not checking it as regularly as I used to, instead just holding my nose for a quick 15 minutes read of the main stories on an online broadsheet. Remember that Covid’s kick in the teeth came on top of the whole Brexit process following me into a public toilet, wrestling me to ground and hitting my head on the toilet bowl. I felt helpless to change anything and the British government didn’t seem to have a clue how to dress their self-inflicted wounds. Rather than depress myself with regular reminders of the steaming pile of diplomatic and societal dung I put the blinkers on and remained in my motorcycle and family bubble. And my mood improved.
Then came phone footage of a white police officer killing an unarmed black suspect in the US city of Minneapolis, the life literally squeezed out of George Floyd as he lay on the floor surrounded by other officers and onlookers. At the time of writing the officer had been charged with second degree murder. I needed to check what this degree meant, it is unlawful, intentional but not premeditated killing. If it could be proved the cop had gone to work that day planning to kill someone that would make it first degree murder. As it was, he just killed him because he could and no one stopped him.
I woke up on Tuesday 2 June to an Instagram feed already full of black squares. It took me a while to grasp what was happening. Initiated by the music, sport and entertainment industry, Black Out Tuesday was supposed to be a pause in marketing and self-promotion, a show of solidarity with black communities who find themselves on the wrong end of racism. It quickly mutated, and became got confused, even hiding hard information used by people who needed it most, but its heart seemed to be in the right place.
I didn’t see this as a political statement. It was saying, We see fellow humans suffering from behaviour that is unjust, things that we don’t have to deal with on a daily basis (simply because we have a different skin colour) and by posting this black square we are saying, in a unified voice, things must change.
As I write that it seems the most obvious thing in the world to say. Systematic racism is wrong. Who can argue with that? I posted the square on the feed of Sideburn magazine, my own motorcycle magazine. I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission, I didn’t have to check company policy. The buck stops with me. Underneath was the line, ‘Black lives matter’. It was a simple, perhaps too simple, show of solidarity with other humans. Who could argue with that? Well… Within a few minutes people were telling me how stupid I was for falling for the myth of downtrodden minorities. Myth! Others told me that ‘All lives mattered’ and they were unfollowing the magazine’s feed.
The black squares kept appearing in my feed. Then it began to dawn on me. Very few companies within motorcycling were posting anything related. Not only that, it was business as usual for some, trying to sell their brand new bikes like any other day. Friends were waking up all over the world posting black squares. Custom builders were posting black squares. Individuals were. But very few manufacturers.
Harley-Davidson were one of the first to put out a statement, flanked by two black squares, saying, ‘We stand in solidarity with our Black colleagues and riders, as we condemn acts of racism and bigotry of any kind, and move together toward an equitable society for all.’
That is another statement that’s hard to disagree with: ‘…an equitable society for all’. There’s no finger pointing, no blame, no condemnation of police brutality that could stoke discussion, no mention of actions that need to be taken, or suggestions of reparations. The Milwaukee firm were simply asking, can we make society better for all? Who can argue with that? Well, again, it turns out so many people can that the comments were turned off (but are still on facebook if you really want to depress yourself).
California-based tuning firm Vance and Hines posted a comment from their company president stating, among other things, ‘We will not tolerate racism… There must be a better way’. They left their comments on and it was alight with followers saying the company was ‘pandering’. Pandering? For saying they’re not racist! Triumph Motorcycles’ US feed posted a square with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday and received so many negative comments that the boss of marketing told the PR person in charge of the feed to disable the comments. When he said he would rather lose his job than turn off the discussion, the matter ended with him resigning. The PR guy who walked out of his job in tears is a BAME man.
Small businesses, like The Rusty Butcher, a US clothing and accessories company aimed at bikers, made a Black Lives Matter keyring and said they’d donate all proceeds to BlackLivesMatter-related charities. He had customers saying they were going to throw away all their Rusty Butcher clothing because of it.
Famous individuals in the motorcycle world who posted the square got more abuse aimed at them and their feeds. Carey Hart (freestyle motocross star, husband of pop star Pink) was set upon with snarls and ill-thought out comments, but is, I hope and assume, big and confident enough to take the abuse. One young pro flat tracker put up a square, the next time I looked it had gone. I asked what happened, ‘Bunch of negative reactions. Sucks but I’m not gonna sit here and let people walk over me and talk bad of me so I just deleted it. Sucks people are shitty.’
So anyone who put their head over the parapet to show some humanity was being bullied and abused into backing down. This is a societal problem, but when motorcycle companies, personalities or racers don’t feel it’s right to say something, or they don’t feel confident in taking an anti-racist stance it makes me wonder why. Afraid of losing followers or customers? Afraid of criticism? Is it because they know that motorsport, and the ‘western’ motorcycle scene is predominantly white so it’s easier not rock the boat? If you thought like that, you might assume Harley-Davidson, with their very traditional owner base, would have the most to lose. And perhaps they will. Perhaps if there are racists buying their bikes, and I’m not going to profile anyone because that’s part of the problem, but if there are racists buying Harleys who are outraged at this show of solidarity with black riders and colleagues, will they look online for companies who didn’t post anything and buy one of their bikes instead?
Is this where motorcycling is in 2020?
If you're interested in reading of my other columns for Café Racer click the first hashtag below.