Blaming the cyclist, once again. Thanks, hegemony!

Well, here we go again. Another story about a dead cyclist, another round of victim blaming.

Just over a month ago, I posted a critique of local news coverage about a drunk driver who killed a bike commuter. I argued that the news media took pains to affirm that the dead cyclist did not deserve to die by reporting that he was “careful” and wore protective equipment (lights and helmet). Headlines such as “Bicyclist fatally run over was new to Minneapolis, careful about bike safety” reminded some readers of the problematic rhetoric that media use when discussing sexual assault: “Woman raped was new to Minneapolis, careful about sexual assault.”

A victim of violence and their precautionary behavior is not relevant to these stories. What is relevant is the violence. By reaffirming that these victims were attempting to be “safe,” it then creates a dichotomy to those who are not “safe.” If a victim was not attempting to be safe, then how will their situation be read? And at the very least, who gets to define what is “safe”?

Unfortunately, this same narrative got repeated in local news all over again. Just this week, a local news story reported that Minneapolis police reopened a cold case on a 2008 hit-and-run that resulted in a dead cyclist. The driver was never caught.

The story started off by explaining that analysis of paint chips recovered at the scene point to a specific year, make, and model of vehicle that hit the cyclist.

And then, without any transition, the journalist writes:

With warmer weather soon to come, [Lt.] Hudok [of the Traffiic Investigations Unit] says cyclists should remember what it takes to safely share the road with motorists. More precautions should be taken beyond wearing a helmet.

“Light-colored or reflective clothing, especially in the evening hours, is helpful,” Hudok said. “Reflectors, bicycle lights, things of that sort are also great for increasing visibility and safety.”

And then the journalist abruptly mentions there are no witnesses for the hit-and-run crash.

First, Hudok’s comments have absolutely nothing to do with the case. The cyclist, Jim Nisser, was hit in September, many months into our warmer season. Nisser was never reported to not be wearing a helmet nor would a helmet have guaranteed a better outcome. The driver dragged Nisser under their vehicle for “some distance.”

Second, Nisser was known for being one of those “safe” cyclists that always wore protective gear. But, like the tragic case of Marcus Nalls, no amount of lights, reflective gear, or helmet usage can keep a driver from hitting you from behind. Ask any cyclist: it is our worst nightmare. You have no control over what drivers do behind you. All you can hope for is that they are paying attention while driving. In these cases, clearly distracted and impaired driving were the causes. The cyclists were victims.

Hudok’s comments do not reflect the situation with Nisser nor do they have anything to do with this sort of vehicular homicide. I mean really, a quote about how bicyclists should be cautious at night? Earlier in the article it said Nisser was riding in the morning. What do Hudok’s comments have to do with the cold case? These quotes read more like a rushed copy + paste than a thoughtful response to the crash.

So we could chalk this up to bad journalism and move on. Except these subtle moments in media send loud and clear messages about what it is to be a bicyclist in a vehicle-dominated street scape.

Here we have a hit-and-run cold case being re-opened that is 100% the fault of the driver resulting in a bicyclist’s death, and yet the official response is: hey bicyclists, you better be cautious out there!

It is also helpful to think through what it is not being said.

There is no statement about the dangers of driving under the influence, how drivers need to be extra cautious as the amount of bicyclists on the streets will increase with the temperature, or the ways in which drivers can make their presence known to bicyclists.

At the end of the article, there is generic police statement asking both drivers and cyclists to watch out for each other. But then follows up with statistics that show that both parties are equally to blame for crashes. In an article about how a driver was most definitely at fault, these two moments create confusion about where the blame is being put.

These articles, statements, and statistics generally suggest that bicyclists are expected to be responsible for our own safety. The “equal fault” statistic neglects to mention which party is driving a machine that can actually kill people. It is up to us to dress like Christmas trees (h/t J. Velo), stay extra vigilant at sunset, and wear a helmet. If we don’t do these things, the logic that follows is that we did not do enough to keep ourselves safe from those unpredictable drivers.

The behavior of both Nalls and Nisser was completely irrelevant to their deaths. So why does the media insist on focusing on the bicyclists’ behavior and not the drivers?

There is a running joke in Media Studies classrooms that teachers love to “ruin” media for students. We ruin it by exposing patterns in media representations that seek to reaffirm particular values, ideas, and politics that may not speak to all consumers. It is a rather complex approach to media analysis, but it is one that very clearly exposes how the media helps keep dominant ideologies in the forefront of media representations.

In this example, we can see the media perpetuating the idea that vehicles are the dominant form of transportation by producing “victim blaming” narratives about bicyclists.

It is no surprise that the U.S. privileges the motorized vehicle. But it is interesting even local news stories about a bicyclist’s death-via-car manage to reaffirm the subordination of bicyclists and their rights to safe riding conditions.

Quite simple, hegemony (the subtle coercion of people to accept dominant views) is all powerful. It finds all sorts of ways to stay put. Even in places where it doesn’t make much sense. It is our job to push against these moments so that we can shift what is considered hegemonic (it is movable!).

I really hope this is the last blog post I have to write about this issue.

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