Block by block, cycle-bound activist Sabir Abdussabur fights injustice on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut.
It’s seven o’clock, Saturday, December 9, 2017.
Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut, first snowfall of the year.
Sabir Askari Abdussabur emerges from The Grove, a downtown co-working space fashioned within the old Horowitz Brothers fabric store, where he runs his marketing agency, 4Real Productions, on the top floor.
He rolls out of the building with Mater, his custom-built rusty black Schwinn Sidewinder. The bike is equipped with passenger pegs, a cushioned trunk seat, and deflated knobby tires for handling the snow. Three interlinked Kryptonite steel locks hang from his handlebars. Abdussabur often holds the chain of locks out into the street, using it as a hand signal to cars when he rides. A driver once mistook the locks for a gun, resulting in Abdussabur getting searched by police in a parking lot the next town over.
He’s wearing shin guards, padded gloves, a few layers of clothing, and ten-dollar shoes from Walmart. The black mask he’ll soon don is propped up over his forehead, revealing bright eyes above a friendly smile. This is the wheeled watchdog of the “Greatest Small City in America.”
The Masked Maniac is 24 years old, black, and Muslim — and a late-night weekend fixture in downtown New Haven no matter the weather. For the next eight hours, he’ll ride two-mile laps along the local club circuit, pulling over erratic drivers, tailing red-light running cops, buffering pedestrians and cyclists from traffic, logging potholes and broken glass in the road, and dodging indignant motorists.
Abdussabur began riding around with masks on in 2013, for fun at first, then as a social experiment. He was working as a Starbucks barista at the time and gave his supervisor rides home on the grocery rack of his bike. One day they hit the streets dressed as Spider-Man and Mary Jane, the movie’s theme music playing on Abdussabur’s boombox as they rode through New Haven and neighboring towns.
People loved seeing the Marvel duo, and they were often asked to stop for photo opportunities. Abdussabur found a very different public reaction when he began wearing less iconic masks, though. Plain masks in blue, white, and black made people wary and fearful.
“People being scared of this mask is like them being scared of me being black,” Abdussabur says, “so I might as well just go with it, because no matter how you look at it people are going to be scared of me for something. So I ended up doing it on weekends. I would close at Starbucks, throw the mask on, ride around, blast music, and just have fun.”
Abdussabur stops at the dollar store before he starts his rounds. He needs batteries for his massive Bluetooth boombox, affixed around his torso with a thick cable and carabiners. He says his upbeat tunes help diminish the fear motorists and pedestrians feel when he approaches them, mask down, on his bike.
“Sometimes people don’t directly see me, they’ll see the back of my head, but they’ll hear their favorite song playing,” he says. “So a lot of the fear gets diminished.”
A man in pajama pants passes by, then does a double-take before Abdussabur can pedal up the street. The man circles back, a pint of liquor lit up in his hand. Cinematic snow falls from the sky.
“Hey, what’s your name?” the man asks, extending his arm in greeting. “I’ve seen you around but never without your mask.”
“Sabir,” Abdussabur replies, shaking the man’s hand.
“Sabir. All right man, drive safe.” He sets back on his path.
“That happens about five times a week,” Abdussabur says.
Batteries procured, Abdussabur talks about the recent early morning break-in at Devil’s Gear bike shop, around the corner on Orange Street. The burglars smashed a gaping hole in the front window and took a BMX bike. It’s where Abdussabur learned to fix bikes when he returned to New Haven from the University of Connecticut four years ago, having run out of money and zeal for higher education. He says he’ll be expanding his route to check on the shop.
Abdussabur has always been an activist. Homeschooled through seventh grade, he went on to found The Youth Revolution as an eighth-grader at Amistad Middle School. The Revolution began as a four-person rap group, spouting rhymes at halftime shows about being drug-free and having safe sex. In nine months the group had expanded to 40 members, and by the time Abdussabur was a junior at Amistad High, The Youth Revolution had morphed into an accredited art course exploring the history of hip-hop and poetry. The members went on to organize the first International Youth Day in 2010, a “youth conference minus the boring stuff,” according to Abdussabur.
These youth-focused endeavors live on in Project Game On, an evening of Nintendo and Genesis-era video game tournaments 4Real hosts monthly at The Grove, with pizza, soda, and a chance for players to win up to $50. But tonight, he’s working for more than New Haven’s youth — he’s riding on behalf of the entire city.
Ready to ride, Abdussabur pulls his mask down and turns the music up. He doesn’t wear a helmet. He says he knows how to fall, and when he does his legs take the brunt of the impact. The mask does, however, help protect his face.
* * *
The Masked Maniax bike club, founded during that Spider-Man summer, is comprised of Abdussabur and three younger members. The Maniax adopted all-black uniforms in 2016, inspired by an impassioned speech by Jesse Williams, star of “Grey’s Anatomy” and producer of the Black Lives Matter documentary “Stay Woke,” as well as the winner of that year’s BET Humanitarian Award.
“Now, this award — this is not for me,” said Williams. “This is for the real organizers all over the country — the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”
“The Masked Maniax bike club decided that we were going to start wearing black masks only,” Abdussabur explains. “To give younger kids that look up to us the idea that black isn’t always associated with villain, it can also be associated with hero. The white, gold, and silver masks we wear got put on hold.”
Wearing all black is also useful when trying to elude a motorist giving the Maniax chase, which happens frequently. The uniform allows them to slip into an alley and stay unseen.
Abdussabur recalls one rainy night when a pickup truck chased him through the Fair Haven neighborhood when he had a friend perched on his bike’s back seat. Another driver tried to ram him on the corner of Elm and High streets after telling Abdussabur he was “another coon in the way.” Abdussabur followed the driver to get his plates, and at one point the man got out of his car and tried to hit Abdussabur with a cane. More slurs and expletives were thrown; Abdussabur responded to each with the man’s license plate number.
Abdussabur’s been hit by cars, too, suffering a compound fracture in his leg from a hit-and-run with a Cadillac SUV in 2014. His left pedal lodged between the front tire and the body of the car, Abdussabur was dragged down Howe Street from Pizza House to Mamoun’s Falafel, about a quarter-block. He waited to bail until he passed a row of parked cars, landing at the feet of a Yale police officer. He took a week off from biking and hobbled around town on crutches.
“At least I don’t panic when I get hit by cars, during those high-stress situations,” he says. “I recognize that if it was somebody else, they probably would have died.”
* * *
Nine o’clock, December 9. Abdussabur heads up Crown Street, calmly pedaling past music venues, posh cocktail bars, barbecue joints, Thai restaurants, and the club famous for its mashed potato pizza. It’s a slow night. His focus will be documenting how the city deals with snow cleanup.
Abdussabur hangs a right on High Street, moving into Yale territory — the art gallery, the School of Architecture. Things are quiet until he reaches Elm and Howe, where a dive bar triangulates with two pizza shops. He stops a U-turning motorist, then another driver who pulls out into the road without a signal, nearly cutting Abdussabur off.
Around midnight, he sees a car run one red light, then another. Abdussabur pedals after it, catching up at College Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, close to the connector for I-95 and I-91. He shines a flashlight into the car, startling the driver, who works for Uber. Abdussabur says nine out of ten cars that run red lights in New Haven are Uber or taxi drivers.
The light turns green and the motorist peels off, irritated at the reprimand. Abdussabur snaps a photo of the car’s license plate. The Maniax report repeat offenders’ license plates via their various social media platforms and use their private Facebook group to log issues: broken glass in the bike lane, snow preventing wheelchair access on sidewalk corners, potholes, cops that run red lights or their sirens for no good reason.
Abdussabur and his fellow bikers take care of what they can on their own. They clear branches from the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, escort Yale students home from school, intervene in muggings or assaults. Before a ride, they’ll map out where police and EMTs are stationed in case emergency response is needed. They report potholes and the like through SeeClickFix, an app developed in New Haven that allows citizens to anonymously report non-emergency issues to local governments.
After the Uber driver encounter, Abdussabur heads to his marketing client, Anaya Sushi, for a break and some midnight ramen. It’s one of several non-bar spots he frequents during his late-night rides.
A car follows too close for comfort on the way there. The Masked Maniac grabs hold of his bike lock chain, holding his arm out into the lane. The car pulls back.
* * *
Shafiq R.F. Abdussabur, Sabir’s father, published A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in 2010. It offers a wealth of information on topics such as how motorists should conduct themselves during a traffic stop (be extra polite and cooperative) and how to appear in court (show up early and in a suit), as well as sharp analysis of the “piss-poor policing” and cultural ignorance behind the seemingly endless death parade of people of color at the hands of the police.
The book is dedicated to Malik Jones, Aqhmed Amadu Diallo, Sean Bell, and their respective families. Each of these men of color were unarmed when killed by police officers, in New Haven, the Bronx, and Queens.
“Remember,” Shafiq Abdussabur writes, “in most cases, you will come out fine during almost any non-felony-related motor vehicle stop as long as you are courteous and polite. Don’t try to be cute or a smart mouth, even if your parent or relative is a police officer, or your father is the chief of police, or you are the mayor’s son.”
Shafiq, a sergeant in the New Haven Police Department and a well-known champion of community-based policing, retired last month after 21 years on the force. Born Tommy Fulcher Johnson, Shafiq had powerful encounters with the police at an early age. His mother was a Black Panther, and she and Shafiq had to flee a New Haven protest after police charged the crowd. Later that day, a patrol car drove slowly by their house, keeping a watchful eye. Shafiq was only four or five years old.
He’d go on to serve as president of the Black Student Alliance at the University of West Georgia, where he organized the school’s first joint Greek week, bringing black and white fraternities together for the first time. He coordinated a successful protest of UWG’s investments in apartheid South Africa.
His name — Shafiq translates to “Compassionate” and Abdussabur to “Servant of the Most Patient” — was adopted post-college, after Shafiq returned to New Haven and joined Masjid ad-Islam, an inclusive religious community affiliated with Orthodox Sunni Islam. When Shafiq and other members of the masjid identified a drug problem in their Dwight neighborhood, they formed their own patrols and decried the police for their lack of response. Then Chief of Police Nicholas Pastore suggested Shafiq become an officer. He did.
Sabir Askari translates to “The One Who is Patient” and “Warrior” in Arabic. Sabir hasn’t read A Black Man’s Guide, but he’s sure the book is filled with all the lessons he got from his father as a kid.
“Police officers. Eventually, it escalated to me not chasing directly, but following at a high pace,” Abdussabur says with a chuckle. “If they run their lights just to get through a red light — you can’t accuse them unless you know most of the story, if not the full story. You can’t really accuse a police officer of going to a non-emergency unless you follow them long enough and realize they’re not.”
“They hate it. I’ve been cussed out by police officers while their dogs are barking at me in the back of the car. I’ve been yelled at and told they won’t give me a badge number. I give them my business card, take my mask off, and tell them ‘This is my full government name, now what’s your badge number?’ They don’t want me or anybody telling them what to do.”
“I got pulled over a lot the first year,” he recalls. “The cops didn’t know who I was. I got pulled over for ‘not being identifiable by the naked eye on the road,’ which doesn’t make any sense. A couple times I was told I didn’t have peripheral vision, but the cop refused to put the mask on herself to verify that.” He laughs.
“Her excuse was she was in uniform. I was stopped for breach of peace, even though nobody called the cops. The cop felt uncomfortable, but you can’t breach the peace of a cop for a cop to pull you over. That’s not a thing.”
* * *
It’s three a.m., the first hours of New Year’s Eve, 2017. Sixteen degrees and freshly snowed.
The death of Erica Garner, a 27-year-old activist whose father Eric Garner died in 2014 from a police officer’s chokehold, was announced hours earlier on Twitter. She passed from complications following a heart attack.
Abdussabur emerges from The Grove to start his early morning rounds. He was already out yesterday at two p.m., and again with the other Maniax at seven. Their assessment of the city’s snow cleanup? Horrible. A thick layer of slush still covers the main roads, and the bike lanes are hidden under piles the plows left behind. It stopped snowing hours ago.
After a couple loops, Abdussabur stops at the Walgreen’s on York Street, where he purchases a bright orange snow shovel and two LED lights. He threads the shovel through his backpack and heads uptown.
He parks on the sidewalk at Elm and Broadway, where the bike lane leading downtown begins. A new mixed-use Yale building is going up just adjacent, with 41 two-bedroom graduate student apartments and 16,000 square feet of retail space. L.L. Bean will be a tenant come summer 2018.
He affixes the lights to his clothes and begins shoveling, making sure to create a path between the construction barrels for cyclists who might find themselves in a tight spot as they traverse the intersection. A car rips down the street, drifting in the snow. Abdussabur jumps out of the road, shaking his head.
“I don’t even know if this is legal,” he says, back to shoveling. “I’m pretty sure you need a permit to work on a roadway, but this might be a loophole.”
Outkast remixes and “Him and I” by G-Eazy & Halsey thump on his boombox.
It will take him three hours to clear the bike lane two and a half blocks, down to College Street. By then the temperature will have dropped to 13 degrees. Abdussabur will head back to The Grove for more work at 4Real. He says he’ll sleep later, in the afternoon — he still has laundry to do for the week. He also works mornings as the custodial operations manager for Eco-Urban Pioneers, a subcontractor managing eight New Haven public schools, Monday through Friday. He’s off from that job for the holiday, affording extra room in his schedule.
At 10:30, Abdussabur posts on Facebook. Bold white text against a lime-green gradient:
“Where are the plow trucks; it is damn near 11AM,” followed by an emoji with expletives covering its mouth. “#NHv #GodHelpAllOfYouNextElection.”