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Free Wheels: The Scraper Bike Movement Rolls On
It's a Wednesday afternoon, and in the administrative offices of East Oakland's Edward Shands Adult School, Tyrone "Champ" Stevenson is talking the finer points of legal patents. He's two weeks shy of his twentieth birthday, but already has a budding business to look after.
Stevenson invented "scraper bikes," and for the past two years, they've been seen almost everywhere in Oakland. The classic scraper bike is a small BMX frame with larger, 10-speed wheels decorated with foil, colorful tape wound between the spokes of the tires and elaborate custom paint jobs. Particularly ambitious folks can get high-quality speaker systems installed.
As the self-proclaimed Scraper Bike King, Stevenson coined the name "scraper bikes" because they were modeled after "scrapers" -- late-'80s model sedans tricked out with oversized rims, custom paint jobs and sound systems that came to fame during the rise of the Bay Area "hyphy" music movement. The bikes were a less expensive, do-it-yourself alternative that didn't require a driver's license.
But the "scraper bike movement" -- as it's called among riders and admirers -- isn't just a colorful way to get noticed. Stevenson describes it as a deliberate effort to meld artistry and entrepreneurship to develop skills and opportunities for young people in Oakland.
The scraper bike movement is characterized by one simple organizing strategy: Each One, Teach One.
Stevenson began building bikes when he was 13. After repeatedly getting into trouble at school, his mother grounded him, adding that he should put his energy into something he was good at that would keep him out of trouble. He eventually found himself in his backyard, being schooled by a cousin on how to put together bike rims. Soon, he was adding his own styles and colors, and by the time he began riding his customized scraper bike around his neighborhood, other people wanted in.
"At first, my friends thought it was something new, something they had never seen before," he says.
Slowly, he began to teach. Stevenson occasionally hosts informal workshops in backyards around his neighborhood. He invites friends, who in turn invite other friends, and together they learn practical skills such as building bike frames and adjusting sound systems. The idea is that those friends then go and teach others. In all, Stevenson says he's personally taught about 20 people how to build the bikes. His eventual goal is to open a bike shop.
The bikes are also available for purchase. Buyers can get a new, custom-made bike for two to three hundred dollars. If you bring your own bike frame to be customized, the price runs anywhere from $50 to $175. Stevenson also points out that he's quick to give away bikes for free to neighborhood kids interested in learning the trade.
The popularity of the scraper bike movement was bolstered by a homemade YouTube video featuring Champ with his rap group, Da Trunk Boiz. The video shows the crew on colorful, custom-decorated bikes proudly exclaiming, "I don't need no car!" The song gained a strong following, and Stevenson estimates that the video's rough and final versions have received a total of almost three million views.
According to Stevenson, bike orders started coming in from as far away as Germany.
There's also the Scraper Bike Crew, whose membership fluctuates in number and age. The crew, which averages about 20 men and women between the ages of 11 and 25, has been invited to local events, such as Grind for the Green, the first solar-powered hip-hop show in the spring of 2008, and the Living Word Festival, an annual spoken word event whose 2008 theme was "sustainability." The crew rides, shows off their creations and is ready and willing to enlist anyone who's interested in building their own.
"Any event that we go to has to be positive," Stevenson says. "[It's] a way of bringing the youth with me on their bikes and... showing them that there's... something else out there and people to support you being creative."
Organizing Against Violence
The movement's organizing strategy and business model are grounded in efforts to create better role models for Oakland's youth. The goal is to show that there's an alternative to potentially dangerous street lives.
The Oakland Tribune recently reported that Oakland has the fifth highest crime rate in the country. In 2007, the city reported 127 homicides. As of December 2008, 119 people have been murdered in the city. According to the Ella Baker Center, an Oakland-based non-profit, much of the violence affects young people under 24.
Stevenson's personal motivation to create better role models is in part inspired by the fact that, while growing up, he was missing one of the most important figures in his life. When he was in the third grade, his father died of complications from AIDS.
"A lot of the guys I ride with don't have fathers, and I didn't have my father, so we connect on the same level and help each other out," he says.
While his father's absence shadowed his life, his mother's presence anchored it. During his senior year at McClymonds High School, the scraper bike movement began to get attention in both the community and the media. News articles popped up in Oakland's independent weekly, East Bay Express, and on NPR. Stevenson admits he was caught up in the experience, letting his grades slip and failing to earn enough credits to graduate.
"My mom told me that if I wanted to be serious about my business, I had to get an education."
Eventually, Stevenson enlisted the help of adult mentors to work as a conduit for news reporters. He also began to collaborate with Bay Area organizations like the Ella Baker Center and Oaklandish, an independent clothing company also based in Oakland.
But can a youth-led bike movement help stop Oakland's violence?
"Scraper bike [culture]... is flamboyant, beautiful, colorful, creative... but it's also positive," says Nicole Lee, the political director for the Ella Baker Center's Silence the Violence campaign.
Through her work with Oakland youth over the past two years, Lee sees potential. "I think we already have our solutions at the community level," she says. "The question is how do we get the resources and how [do we] take youth seriously enough to build stuff up to scale?"
Stevenson is also optimistic.
"If we had a center, where a lot of kids could just come, I feel deep in my heart that would really reduce a lot of the crime," he says.
After we spoke, Champ was meeting with an editor to put the finishing touches on a $5,000 innovative small business grant application with Oaklandish.
He's now only three credits away from getting his high school diploma at Edward Shands Adult School. When he found out that one of his favorite teachers at Edward Shands, Mrs. Block, was married to a longtime businessman, he began to get serious about patenting his work.
"I can actually have a business with this, something for Oakland to have a trade," he says. "It's much bigger than me and the bikes."
Jamilah King is the associate editor of WireTap.
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- Young Organizers Speak: We Are a New Coalition for the Common Interest by Matt Singer, Jefferson Smith
- Young Organizers Speak: It’s A New Era by Biko Baker