It was only a mile or so into my two-mile ride from NoDa to First Ward Park to meet with the founder of Wheels for Equality that I began to think maybe an immersive approach to this story wasn’t the right idea.
I hadn’t ridden a bike in quite some time, and since launching Queen City Nerve, even my regular running exercise had fallen by the wayside. And yet there I was volunteering to join up with the Bike Squad, a group of around 30 cyclists, skateboarders, bikers and others who had come together to support and defend protesters during ongoing protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May.
As it turned out, my doubts were unfounded, as Bike Squad is not as physically taxing as I thought — or at least it wasn’t by the time I joined on for the night. I spent the evening riding in front of protesters one block at a time, blocking streets so that they could continue on their path and move on to march another day.
Now, as protests around Charlotte begin to taper off, Bike Squad founder Greg Martinez is asking what he and his crew can do to stay active in the movement. The immediate need for Bike Squad’s services — blocking roads and supplying protesters with food and water — is dwindling, but the fight for systemic change in a racist America is still very much alive.
In June, Martinez and others launched Wheels for Equality, an organization that will continue to support the movement for Black lives, be it through food delivery, community organizing, mental health support or whatever’s needed of the folks on wheels.
Bike Squad Hits the Road
When I first arrived at First Ward Park on Wednesday, June 17, I found Martinez laying down on a rock on the northwestern side of the park, resting up between his day job delivering sandwiches by bike and his unpaid night job as the unofficial leader of the Bike Squad. It was about 7 p.m., and Martinez knew most protesters wouldn’t begin to show up until closer to 8, so it was a good time to get in some R&R.
By that time, Martinez had already ridden countless miles over a two-week span, including a seemingly endless night on June 8 when protesters did their usual laps around Uptown before going to the center of NoDa and back, logging what he estimated to be about 14 miles in a night.
It’s all in a day’s work for Martinez, who sold his car and committed to cycling as his primary mode of transportation 11 years ago. He formed Bike Squad in 2016 as a way to help during the Charlotte Uprising protests in response to the killing of Keith Lamont Scott. In 2016, he and others would ride back and forth from Uptown to the protesters’ base of operations at Area 15 on 15th and North Davidson streets.
In 2020, he began showing up to protests on foot early on, watching the unorganized aggression between police and protesters on Beatties Ford Road and then Uptown. He watched as officers would cut protesters off from one another, forming many small groups that were easier for them to quell as compared to one large mass.
After June 2, when police trapped protesters with gas and shot pepper balls at them in Uptown, Martinez decided to get back in the Bike Squad game.
“What I was really doing was watching each night, seeing the interaction between the crowd and the police and how that was, and at the same time asking, how far is it going to go before I decide to raise the flag and make the call?” Martinez recalled.
He got a group of fellow cyclists together, some of whom had helped bicycle supplies to protesters during the Charlotte Uprising, and they got to work on a two-pronged mission to support and defend, their answer to the police’s serve and protect motto.
That mission included not only running supplies such as water bottles and snacks to protesters from stocked up spots such as Jail Support on East 4th Street or First Ward Park, but also acting as a buffer between police and protesters.
“When you march toward a line of moto-bike cops or bike cops or riot cops, you get nervous, you get anxious, people make real quick decisions they don’t think through,” Martinez said, “whereas if you roll up and you see a squad of bikes that are on your side between you and the police, you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re protecting us, they’re going to hold that line for us,’ so everybody proceeds peacefully and they don’t worry as much.”
A Night on the Town
When I joined up with Bike Squad on June 17, police had begun to give protesters space, and rarely were any officers seen in cars or on foot during the night’s march. Instead, the main job of Bike Squad was to block traffic on roads where protesters were crossing through.
That night, the group fluctuated between 20 and a dozen people, with most on bikes but a good bit on skateboards and two on motorcycles.
Trevor Holmes told me he used to ride his motorcycle down from his home in Huntersville and then march with protesters until someone explained to him that Bike Squad could use his services.
“Having heavier bikes actually makes it more secure because if somebody wanted to maybe get aggressive with their car, they’re less likely to push a motorcycle,” Holmes explained. “It’s been a mix of us ever since.”
The threat from drivers is real; on the night I rode along with Bike Squad, I witnessed at least two cars aggressively drive through the crowd with tires peeling as they tried to get around them. Each time a Bike Squad member followed and jotted down the offending car’s license plate number so as to check the driver’s info and make sure this wasn’t a repeat offender.
By June 17, the marches had become rather predictable, beginning from First Ward Park and heading directly to the Black Lives Matter mural on South Tryon Street, where protesters could potentially grow the crowd.
“The Black Lives Matter mural is Checkpoint One in that so many people are out there taking pictures of it; it is an attraction that draws people so, early in the evening, it allows us to go and be seen,” Martinez said. “We stop by there, and the idea is that people can see us and if they’re inclined to, they can join the march.”
That Wednesday night marked the fifth anniversary of the Charleston church shootings, in which nine people were killed by a white supremacist during a prayer group. A friend of one of the victims spoke to the crowd as it stood on the mural before he and march leaders with the Million Youth March of Charlotte (MYMC) and others read off the names of each victim. The entire group then took a knee in silence for nine minutes to pay tribute to the victims.
Wheels for Equality Takes Shape
Since the Bike Squad started, the presence of protest leaders like Mario Black of MYMC, Will Johnson and Demarco Blair have made things a bit more stable, keeping confrontations with police to a minimum and allowing for people to discuss solutions rather than strategy.
Martinez said he’s aware that some people in Charlotte believe things became peaceful too quickly, that more confrontation was needed to get the protesters’ points across, and he doesn’t argue that viewpoint, though he believes that the protests have followed a natural progression and that the movement is in a good place.
“That’s one of the big questions that everybody is asking is, ‘Did Charlotte do it too fast?’ Did we do it too quickly, as far as getting peaceful?” he said. “If you ask me did we do things too fast, as far as aggressive action, which is justly deserved perhaps, but at the same time … because we have this peace and we can hear each other talk, that’s why we need to open the conversations. Then we need to help each other, because we all come from different backgrounds, so we all have different resources. So how do we tap into the resources we have, put them on the table, dump them out, and then start sorting it?”
For Martinez, that means the formation of Wheels for Equality, a new organization that he and others with the Bike Squad have launched as a way to extend their services to the community — not just protesters.
As protests have died down, Wheels for Equality has answered the call in different ways, including in response to the shootings that took four lives on Beatties Ford Road during the third night of Juneteenth celebrations on June 22. The group was requested at a memorial for victim Kelly Miller on Nations Ford Road on June 25, and was there to help supply artists and feed attendees at “The First Step Ford” event on June 27, at which three local artists painted a “Beatties Ford Strong” mural on the side of Nikki’s Food Shop near the scene of the shootings.
Looking forward, Martinez wants Wheels for Equality to get more involved in the community, potentially launching a free food delivery service for Black-owned restaurants in the area, serving as an alternative to costly delivery apps like Grubhub and DoorDash.
Local chef Ryan Allen came up with the food delivery idea, as he’s been out riding with Bike Squad whenever he can and thought it was a good way to continue to serve the community.
“My biggest thing is how can I give back to the community that made me a chef? It’s my turn to give back, I’ve done a lot,” Allen told me as we rode alongside each other on June 17. “Kind of taking my passion for riding bikes with the friends that I’ve had through bicycles, and supporting the Black-owned businesses, and trying to cut delivery fees because I know firsthand how expensive Grubhub and Postmates and things like that are. So instead of us doing a bike ride from Common Market or something like that, why couldn’t we do it as a delivery service for a restaurant?”
Support and Defend the Community
Early before our ride on June 17, Martinez was concerned that not enough people would show up for a march, as turnouts had been steadily declining since the June 8 march to NoDa that took place during a Charlotte City Council meeting at which CMPD was forbidden to buy any more tear gas in 2021.
Martinez had no need to worry that Wednesday, however, as eventually Johnson, Blair and Black showed up, then Feed the Movement CLT came out with food for the nearly 100 people that had trickled into the park. And just like that, the march was on.
Still, Martinez knew the marches wouldn’t last forever, and he was fine with that.
“The day we’re not needed is not necessarily a bad day,” he told me that night. “It means we’ve served our purpose and things can continue in a different direction, but it doesn’t end. And should things get set back for whatever reason and things escalate again, we’ll be out there, but I built [Bike Squad] to have a shelf life, and we’re reaching that. And it’s good because look, we’re just sitting here in the park, having a day in the park, having a conversation, everybody knows everybody, and everybody’s getting along.”
When I checked back in with Martinez on June 29, however, it was clear that the potential he saw in Wheels for Equality had changed his mind about that day he had referred to in which Bike Squad would no longer be needed. The marches may have a shelf life, but as long as the movement for Black lives was happening, there would be a place for his team.
On July 4, for example, he’ll be back at First Ward Park for a different sort of march, as the local nonprofit organization Raise a Child of the Carolinas requested that Wheels for Equality be there for the Charlotte Children’s March, which will take place at 10 a.m.
The team is still researching different ways to help the community, including getting that free food delivery service program off the ground, and may even become a nonprofit itself by the end of the year.
“It blows my fucking mind,” Martinez said when asked about the progression from when he started with just a bike and a backpack in 2016. “Because last time things stopped and everything just went back to normal, but in this case I don’t think we can afford the luxury of going back to what the normal is or used to be … The idea was just to go out there and protect our community, protect our neighborhood, protect our city, and to see it turn into something like this, it feels good. That accomplishment of doing the right thing and continuing to do it and having people in your corner and being there for people, too, it just makes you want to do it more.”
And that’s exactly what Wheels for Equality plans to do, shelf life be damned.