More than three years ago, while riding his bike down the sidewalk in front of the since-closed Grocery Outlet store in SODO, Leroy, a former Real Change vendor and the winner of this year’s Change Agent award, was hit by a car. Little did he know, the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) response — callous mockery, along with an attempt to ticket him for not wearing a helmet — would go viral.
SPD wasn’t actually the first to respond, he said. Officers from the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) and a nearby Department of Corrections (DOC) facility got to him first. They were helpful and caring, he said. SPD, less so.
“The people who really hurt my feelings, the Seattle Police Department, they weren’t at the scene. They came later. They never interviewed me, I never spoke to them, I had no idea how they were going to treat the situation,” Leroy said.
A video of the incident compiled by Real Change’s Advocacy Department, which showed bodycam footage from the SPD’s response in which they laugh at the accident and suggest that Leroy got injured because he hadn’t worn a helmet, became the jumping-off point for a successful campaign to repeal King County’s helmet law.
While Leroy is no stranger to a bit of struggle — especially, he said, “when enough’s enough” — he had no idea his work on that campaign would end the ordinance altogether.
“Never did I expect the law to be repealed. I just wanted to call it out: that it was wrong, it was biased and it was being used wrong,” he said. At the time, he pointed out, Uber’s Lime bikes and scooters were ubiquitous in Seattle, and no one was getting tickets for flying around on those things.
“Again, I’m not saying that helmets are not safe, but, if it was that big of a safety issue, they wouldn’t have all these people running around like wild men on electric bikes,” he said, noting that most of the people riding helmetless were “not of [his] skin tone.”
Leroy is Indigenous and currently lives in Pioneer Square. Leroy praised the care he received from Chief Seattle Club for his full recovery from the accident. He had much less praise for how the cops handled the helmet law.
“They didn’t require any of those people to wear helmets,” he said, speaking about the mostly white ridership of bike-shares, and that didn’t sit right with him. Doctoral student Ethan C. Campbell performed an analysis of Seattle Municipal Court data showing that Black and Indigenous cyclists were ticketed at disproportionate rates to white cyclists. Data compiled by David Kroman, then of Crosscut, show that 60 percent of citations were given to people who were experiencing or had experienced homelessness. Leroy has a theory about why so many unhoused individuals were cited.
“The officers got a kick out of it. They had their little fraternity and, if they could embarrass you and make you feel small, they could run you out of the area,” he said. To them, he suspects, it was just mostly a tool they could use to make life more difficult for anyone they deemed undesirable.
While he was experiencing homelessness and living in the SODO neighborhood, Leroy said, he would be constantly harassed about not wearing a helmet. He mostly rode on the sidewalk, but the cops didn’t really care. The day of the accident, he said, “They found a Real Change badge on me and a couple papers, so they automatically thought that I was just a homeless person that deserved whatever.”
They also didn’t see fit to charge the driver. The KCSO deputies and DOC officers managed to contact the car that hit Leroy a few blocks away, by a Jack in the Box. The driver claims to not have seen Leroy or noticed the impact of the crash.
After the accident, while seeking legal redress, a friend suggested he talk to someone in Real Change’s Advocacy Department about his experience.
He did, and the rest is now, quite literally, history.
Leroy testified over and over again at King County Council meetings, describing his personal experience and pointing out the law’s uneven application. He started to believe his efforts might not be in vain when he saw a coalition building around him.
“It was a lot of [County] Council meetings. […] It’s a good portion of your day sitting there, and this was getting close to COVID time. [At that point] everything is on Zoom and such. But then I started seeing the support increasing and a lot of other people getting involved in it, hearing their stories,” he said.
Leroy’s accident, along with his willingness to tell people in power about it, were instrumental in getting the law repealed. Thus his well-deserved Change Agent award. However, he doesn’t see the victory as his.
“I didn’t do anything on my own. I don’t feel I should get any credit for anything,” he said. And that’s how these things work, he stressed.
“You can’t do it on your own. You have to be with others that have that same compassion and feeling for it,” he said. He thanked Real Change’s Advocacy arm in particular.
“Real Change itself is the hero in all of this, because they made it possible for me to follow through and made it pretty convenient for me,” Leroy said.
Regardless, follow through he did. What is his advice to anyone else aspiring to change an unjust law?
“Be committed. Nothing happens overnight. To make any type of difference in government, it’s a lengthy process,” he said.
But, he added, “If you get enough support and enough people around you to support you and help you make a statement, it can happen.”
Read more of the Sept. 14-20, 2022 issue.