Tom Butt
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  Justice for Najari?
August 31, 2018

While it appears that the Alameda County District Attorney will not pursue charges against Najari Smith for resisting arrest, he is still due in court today at 9:00 AM at the Wiley M. Manuel Courthouse, 661 Washington Street, Oakland, for the infraction citation issued for California Vehicle Code Section 27009, excessive sound.

And there is the question of getting his $5,000 bail and his bicycle back, not to mention any restitution for the weekend he spent (illegally, I believe) in jail.

Although I have no proof, it is widely believed that the letter I sent to Mayor Schaaf and District Attorney O,Malley (copied at the end of this email) played a role in the charges being quickly dropped.

For video, see

Charges Dropped Against Richmond Bicycle Activist Najari "Naj" Smith

By John Geluardi
(East Bay Express -  

Najari 'Naj' Smith
Najari "Naj" Smith

The Alameda County District Attorney announced on Monday that charges against popular Richmond bicycle activist Najari “Naj” Smith have been dropped after he spent a weekend in jail and was stuck with a $5,000 bond.

Smith’s attorney, Walter Riley, was glad to hear of the district attorney’s decision. “I was prepared to go to trial, but it’s much better to have the case thrown out.”

Smith’s Aug. 3 arrest by Oakland police for violating a noise ordinance stunned Richmond residents who know him to be a dedicated community activist who has made a positive impact on Richmond youth through bicycling.

Smith is the cofounder and director of Rich City Rides, a nonprofit that offers young people numerous opportunities for positive activities including regular group bicycle rides, internships, working to earn their own bicycles, learning bicycle repair, trail maintenance, and advocating local government on a variety of transportation issues. Smith, 39, is also a respected member of the Richmond Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Smith’s arrest caused alarm throughout Richmond. More than a thousand people signed a petition asking for the charges against Smith to be dropped, and hundreds of people signed up to support Smith at his Aug. 31 court date.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt immediately looked into the circumstances of Smith’s arrest and said it appeared to be a case of “bicycling while black.” On Thursday, Butt wrote a three-page letter to Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Oakland Mayor Libby Shaaf asking that the charges against Smith be dropped.

O’Malley’s office said on Monday that the case against Smith would not be pursued.

Smith was thrown in jail on Aug. 3 while he and approximately 30 young people were on a peaceful, group bicycle ride that ended at Oakland’s First Friday event. The group was in the middle of a traditional “circle ritual” near the intersection of Telegraph and Grand avenues when Oakland police officer Nigel Lawson stopped Smith by grabbing the handle bars of his bicycle.

Officer Lawson told Smith his sound system, which was on a cart attached to his bicycle, was too loud. Smith immediately turned the music off and cooperated with the officer while trying to keep his group calm. Despite Smith’s willingness to comply, Lawson cuffed him, confiscated his bicycle and sound system, and took him to Santa Rita Jail where he spent two nights before being released on $5,000 bail.

Rally for Richmond activist who was arrested for 'biking while black'

Najari Smith bikes during an event to honor Nia Smith, who was stabbed at the MacArthur BART station. Oakland police arrested him because they said his music was too loud. Aug. 3, 2018. Photo courtesy unknown.

By: Janis Mara
Posted: Aug 31 2018 06:43AM PDT
Updated: Aug 31 2018 07:05AM PDT

- A rally is planned for Friday morning for a man many say was arrested simply because he was "biking while black."

Though the Alameda County District Attorney's Office says prosecutors will not charge Najari Smith, a Richmond bicycling activist who was arrested because police said his music was too loud, members of Rich City Rides still plan to protest the initial arrest in front of the Oakland Wiley W. Manuel courthouse. 

Smith, 39, was arrested Aug. 3 shortly after the monthly First Friday art festival on Telegraph Avenue. The event was titled, ironically, "Black Unity Ride Against Racism in Oakland." And it was meant to be a "healing ride" to honor 18-year-old Nia Wilson, who was stabbed to death outside the MacArthur BART station in Oakland on July 22.

Police said he was impeding traffic and playing music too loudly and failed to provide identification, and he was jailed for two days. Smith told KTVU this month that he immediately got off his bike, put his hands in the air and said, "Yo, can you explain this to me a little bit more?" He added, "there was no discussion."

On Monday, District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced she would not file charges against Smith after Richmond Mayor Tom Butt sent her a letter on Smith's behalf. In addition, more than 1,000 people signed a petition urging charges to be dropped,

"This looks like a case of bicycling while black," Butt said in his letter to O'Malley.  "Najari Smith is an extremely thoughtful, collaborative and caring person," Butt said in his letter. "He is widely respected throughout the Richmond community."

Civil rights attorney Walter Riley has agreed to represent Smith for free.

According to Oakland police spokeswoman Felicia Aisthorpe, Oakland police observed Smith impeding traffic at the intersection of West Grand Avenue and Telegraph.  Aisthorpe said Smith's sound system was audible over 50 feet away, an infraction of the state's vehicle code.  

She also said that Smith refused to provide identification and was arrested for that reason, and provided false information to the officers trying to identify him.

Smith founded the bicycling organization Rich City Rides in 2012 and serves as its executive director. The organization encourages bicycling as a healthy lifestyle choice, provides instructions in bike mechanics to young people in Richmond and gives them an opportunity to earn bikes through volunteering.  Smith is also a member of the Richmond Bicycle / Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

In an open letter, Smith wrote that even after all the legal charges against him have been wiped clean, one thing cannot be undone. "The trauma that was laid on me....The trauma is cumulative and excruciating and it all just adds up." 
KTVU's Lisa Fernandez and Andre Senior contributed to this report.

Najari Smith was riding his bike, playing music when Oakland Police arrested him

Otis R. Taylor Jr. | on August 30, 2018
Photo: Photos By Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle
Image 1 of 3

Najari Smith (right), executive director of Rich City Rides, leads others on a community ride in Richmond.
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle
Image 2 of 3

Smith, at his bike shop, gets a bicycle for a participant ahead of the weekly group ride every Sunday that his community organization sponsors in Richmond. Smith was arrested during one such ride.

On Sunday mornings, Najari Smith leads cyclists through the neighborhoods of Richmond for a weekly bike ride.

A trailer attached to his bike pumps music through a speaker to keep the riders on pace — and dancing in their seats.

“We want to change the perception around neighborhood safety,” Smith, 39, said. “When we ride through and they hear the music, people come outside. They wave.”

Smith is the founder and executive director of Rich City Rides, a bike shop and community cycling organization in Richmond. He says the shop has given away more than 1,100 bikes to youth and community members since it opened six years ago. And there have been more than 300 Sunday-morning rides.

But on Aug. 3, as Smith rode through Oakland with other cyclists, he was arrested by Oakland police and his music bike was confiscated.

Police say he was playing music too loudly and resisted arrest. Smith believes he was racially profiled. In the end, the Alameda County district attorney dropped the resisting arrest charge against Smith, but he still faces a fine for the noise violation.

In a statement, the department said officers observed Smith impeding traffic at the intersection of West Grand and Telegraph avenues by continuously riding in circles as officers were trying to clear it. Police said Smith’s music was heard from more than 50 feet away and he refused to provide identification to officers.
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Program assistant Nakari Syon, 23 (left, gives hand signaling instructions as Najari Smith (center) follows.

This is what Smith said happened when he was approached by a police officer near 22nd Street and West Grand Avenue:

He had been on the Red, Bike & Green Ride, which starts at 6 p.m. every first Friday of the month at the Lake Merritt Columns. He rode his music bike with the trailer.

“It’s been a wonderful way of advertising the rides that we do,” Smith said.

More than a dozen black men and women were on the ride, and that evening the cyclists were honoring Nia Wilson, the 18-year-old woman who was slain on July 22 at MacArthur BART Station.

To conclude the ride, Smith and other riders performed a ritual circle at the intersection of West Grand and Telegraph avenues. After exiting the circle, Smith rode on Telegraph Avenue toward downtown. That’s when he said an officer grabbed his handlebars, a potentially dangerous act when a bike is in motion.

Smith said he squeezed his hand brakes before turning the music down. Then he put his hands in the air.

When the officer asked for identification, Smith said he asked why the officer needed it. Smith said he then got off his bike and followed the officer to a police car. Smith said the officer told him he was being detained for a noise violation — and that he was asking to be arrested because he didn’t immediately give up his identification.

“As soon as we got to the police car, he told me to turn around, grabbed my arms and put handcuffs on me and put me inside the car,” Smith said.

Smith spent two nights in jail for something as innocuous as riding his bike while playing music. Why didn’t the officer simply tell Smith to turn the music down?

Why weren’t all the other drivers of cars and motorcycles playing loud music with chest rattling bass that night arrested? I wanted to ask the police some questions, but Johnna Watson, a department spokeswoman, instead sent me a statement.

Supporters of Smith in the Easy Bay bike community, as well as elected officials in Richmond and Oakland, have told me they believe this is a case of biking while black. The ritual circle is something bike groups regularly do to mark the end of rides.

“It’s really policing black expression,” Duane Deterville, a member of Red Bike & Green who was on the ride, said of Smith’s arrest. “This isn’t just an isolated incident that happens with bikes. It shows me that black expression itself is being policed.”

Deterville, 58, has lived in Oakland for four decades. He referred to Smith as a treasure.

“It’s a rare thing for a black man to come of age and then dedicate his life to community in such a profound way that Najari has,” Deterville said. “He’s very much a connector and a unifier and somebody who is a goodwill ambassador.

“They really picked the wrong guy.”

Ginger Jui, executive director of Bike East Bay, a cycling advocacy nonprofit, said the organization wants to see more people of color on bikes “without the fear of being stopped by the police for celebrating, being loud and being ourselves.”

“When the police are harassing black people biking for minor things like playing music or wearing earbuds, that’s not safety,” Jui continued.

Smith said he realizes that his arrest — and his response — represents something bigger than himself.

“We need to see police policy change where this doesn’t happen to anybody else — where we can stop the number of disproportionate stops that happen to black people, people of color and poor people who are criminalized in the communities where they live,” he said.

Earlier this week, I went to Rich City Rides, the bike shop on Macdonald Avenue, a main artery in Richmond. Melvin Willis, a member of the Richmond City Council, said the shop was part of the downtown revitalization because it’s a place where community members gather.

“This is a community spot, and it’s actually promoting getting people out on a bike and out of cars and being a part of healthy living activities and reclaiming their community,” he said.

Smith missed work the Saturday after his arrest because he was in jail, but he made the Sunday morning ride that week. Before it started, a young girl who rides regularly with the group, asked Smith where the music was.

He simply told her he didn’t have the speaker with him, shielding her from his experience.

“I just felt like I let everybody down,” he said.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis R. Taylor Jr. appears Mondays and Thursdays. Email: Twitter: @otisrtaylorjr