Harshing My Mellow Revisited

There has been considerable hand-wringing recently over police use of bicycles as a form of crowd control, and yesterday Mellow Johnny’s bike shop announced they will no longer service the bicycles of the Austin Police Department:

Here’s more from the Austin Statesman:

Including some background from the department’s bicycle buyer:

“For the past eight years I have had the (good) fortune of buying and purchasing equipment for the Downtown Area Command Bike Patrol and our bicycle public order team,” the Austin Police Department’s Christopher Carlisle wrote Tuesday in a since-removed public Facebook post. “We have 158 bike officers in DTAC and have been purchasing our bikes from Mellow Johnny’s bike store in downtown Austin, a local business.

“Today I received a call from the sales manager I have worked with for years at MJ’s. He informed me that they have three employees who work for them that are complaining about providing bikes to the police department in this time of social unrest in protests and disturbances. They stated to ownership that they did not like the fact that we use bicycles to help us manage crowds and crowd movement.”

Back in June I wrote a piece for Outside, at their request, about police, bikes, and protests. After doing so, I had some misgivings about it, which I attempted to articulate at the time:

That’s when I finally understood why I’d felt uncomfortable writing this story about how the police are using bikes against protesters: because who fucking cares? What does it matter if they’re hitting people with bicycles, or batons, or stale French breads?

Furthermore, since then I’ve also heard of people doing shitty things with bicycles and bicycle equipment under the guise of protesting:

Now, I realize that middle-of-the-road takes are no longer acceptable in 2020, but I’ve seen video of a police officer hitting a protester with a bike, and I’ve seen video of a protester smashing a police vehicle with a bike, and I’m of the opinion that both of those things are wrong. I also think this only underscores how ridiculous it is to make any of this about bikes, and that saying “Trek should stop selling bicycles to the police” is as pointless as saying “Abus should stop selling bike locks to protesters.” (No, I have no idea if that lock is made by Abus, and yes, I realize there’s no Antifa buyer sourcing bicycles and accessories at wholesale prices from a specific vendor, but I’d argue that the point still stands.) The bicycle has indeed been an agent of profoundly positive social change throughout it’s history, but it’s also occasionally been a proxy for the moral high ground, and that seems to be what’s happening here.

The thing is, you don’t attain the moral high ground by curating your buying and selling like a Spotify playlist. Capitalism is a murky business. Consider, for example, the other decision Mellow Johnny’s refers to in their post:

We have had to make these choices before when we felt companies whose products we sold put kids at schools at risk of violence. We lost sales due to this choice. We also saw our former vendors later divest of holdings and we’ve returned to selling these products.

They’re referring of course to the Vista Outdoor boycott, which I mentioned not too long ago in a post about helmets. Vista indeed sold off a couple of firearm brands, which presumably gave the retailers who were boycotting them the justification they needed to start carrying their cycling products again. However, the fact is that the majority of Vista’s products are still very much shooting-related. Furthermore, they also have a PAC, and while I haven’t bothered to drill down into which candidates they support, no doubt they’ve contributed to someone whose politics will outrage someone else. And while the smuggies can now ride around in their Bell helmets confident in the knowledge they’re no longer indirectly supporting the NRA, you can rest assured that the principals of Vista-owned brands are sporting their Golden Ring of Freedom blazers with similar self-satisfaction:

Please note that I’m in no way taking a side in the gun debate here, nor am I trying to imply Vista are doing something underhanded, or that retailers should start boycotting again. All I’m pointing out is that, as consumers, there are the stories we tell ourselves, and then there’s the truth. And the two are often only tangentially related.

Of course, when it comes to telling ourselves stories, companies and retailers supply us with the outline, which is what Mellow Johnny’s is doing here. In the case of the Vista boycott they’re also bolstering the narrative by pointing out the following:

We lost sales due to this choice.

This is meant to convince us of their integrity, and indeed I have no reason to question it. I’m extremely grateful to Mellow Johnny’s–they even hosted my very first book signing! At the same time, as the consumer, it’s important to note that Mellow Johnny’s is not a normal bike shop. I don’t know what the ownership structure is these days, nor do I know what Lance Armstrong’s current investment in the shop is, financially or emotionally speaking. However, I’d venture to say that they can afford to “lose sales” if they deem the PR is worth it, and it’s important to remember the shop’s founders are some of the most savvy sports and entertainment marketers in the world. Longtime readers remember that, when I was still anonymous, I attended the Mellow Johnny’s grand opening. What I didn’t tell you was that I flew there with Lance Armstrong on a private jet. All of this is to say this is not an enterprise that operates under the same set of concerns as your typical LBS. They can afford to stop selling CamelBaks or walk away from a $314,000 municipal contract and then write it off as a hedge against getting #cancelled on social media if that’s the way the wind is blowing at the moment.

Certainly that’s their decision to make, and I must reiterate my gratitude to them for all their support in the past. But I also reserve the right to roll my eyes a bit at something that feels a bit like a performative gesture, especially given that the shop owes its existence to someone who many regard as the greatest fraud in sporting history. (For the record I find such pronouncements naive and simplistic, though you’ve got to admit this is a little like a grocery store owned by a drug cartel bragging about how they only sell fair-trade coffee.) If anything, the shop’s provenance is yet another example of just how how murky the realm of commerce and public image is, and of how foolish it is to think you can cleave every scenario into right and wrong.

And yes, despite myself I’m also foolishly looking for right and wrong here, or at least fussing over it instead of simply acknowledging it and moving on. The fact is Mellow Johnny’s made a decision they’ll be lauded and reviled for in turn until everyone forgets about it. The Austin Police Department will turn to another shop–probably one that could use the business. And all will be..the same with the world.

Hey, I think selling bikes is a good thing, even if you’re selling them to the police. But maybe I’m just too pro-bike.

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