What a strange week it was for Joe Bray-Ali. Once seen as bicycle activists' best chance to elect one of their own to the Los Angeles City Council, Bray-Ali has crashed hard — and his campaign's implosion has exposed a deep divide within the bike community over inclusiveness and racial sensitivity.
Years ago, Bray-Ali was known as one of the city's more outspoken, combative bicycle activists. His blog posts and verbal jousting in comments sections were aggressive, perhaps verging on bullying. He represented one faction of the bike-activist community, the one you might call the "bike-lane fundamentalists," who never met a bicycle safety or pedestrian safety improvement they didn't like. In recent years, another side has emerged, one you might call the "yes, but" side, whose adherents believe that you should build bike lanes and other infrastructure that make streets safe, but who also have concerns about side effects — namely, that bike lanes can drive gentrification and that policies that crack down on unsafe driving can lead to racial profiling.
"There are certainly factions," says Joe Linton, the editor of Streetsblog L.A. "I’d say for the last five, seven years there’s been a tension, for sure. And I think it’s a healthy one."
One such argument broke out in the comments section of the Figueroa for All Facebook group in October 2015, over the "Vision Zero" initiative, which aims to end all traffic deaths in Los Angeles, in part by cracking down on unsafe driving. Streetsblog L.A. editor Sahra Sulaiman was among those who voiced concerns that this initiative could lead to racial profiling. Bray-Ali called this view "nit-pickingly myopic." Sulaiman pushed back; Bray-Ali called Sulaiman and L.A. County Bike Coalition executive director Tamika Butler "concern trolls." That was typical for Bray-Ali; he had little patience for sensitivity or consensus-building, at least when it came to his agenda.
A year later, Bray-Ali had cut his hair and shaved his face and declared his candidacy for City Council, running against incumbent Gil Cedillo, who'd famously opposed bike lanes on Figueroa in Northeast L.A. Bray-Ali seemed to have mellowed a bit with age and fatherhood. He had a committed group of volunteers, the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times and, most important, an issue.
But some in the bike community hadn't forgotten Bray-Ali's abrasiveness, and they were not surprised when LAist published a startling story last week about Bray-Ali's offensive comments on the online forum Voat, which might be described as Reddit only worse. The news site posted screenshots of Bray-Ali commenting matter-of-factly on sections of the website such as "v/Niggers" and "v/FATPEOPLEHATE." In one, Bray-Ali wrote that transgender people seeking gender-reassignment surgery "doesn't seem like something worthy of praise, but instead of being criticized as a shameful excess."
Bray-Ali apologized, telling LAist: "Looking back on the comments, I’m embarrassed and ashamed." He was somewhat less contrite speaking to the L.A. Times, telling the publication, rather unconvincingly: "Many of the things that I wrote, I didn’t even believe them when I wrote them. ... I was trying to have an argument with racists online. I found a place where they go and I tried to spark an argument with them.”
L.A. Weekly has since learned about comments Bray-Ali appears to have made on the Red Pill Network, a men's rights section of Reddit (founded by a New Hampshire state legislator!). Most of his comments were inoffensive, though not all of them, and added to the general picture of a guy who was all too comfortable spending time conversing with some of the internet's more odious characters (as well as a guy who spent way too much time on the internet).
The most recent revelations about the candidate came Friday morning from Bray-Ali himself. In a Facebook post, he admitted to owing around $48,000 in back taxes and wrote: "I slept with several other women from 2011 to 2014. Not my wife. For a time I even had a Tinder profile."
What might have been intended as a mea culpa looked more like a public meltdown. Even worse, a serious transgression — cheating on his wife for three years — was flippantly shoehorned in between other, less serious infractions, as if they all fell under the same rubric of "I'm not perfect."
Bray-Ali called the succession of "social media scandals" a "distraction from what this election is about and not a reflection of who I am as a person. They are a verification that I am a human being with flaws, like everyone." He made it clear he was staying in the race, even though he'd lost his most prominent supporters, including City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, the Los Angeles Times' editorial board and the East Area Progressive Democrats.
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"I knew Joe’s public persona, his public policy positions," says Jesse Creed, who himself challenged City Councilman Paul Koretz and lost, and who was supporting Bray-Ali until recently. "But this revealed a different side of Joe, and I was deeply disappointed by it. I went out on a limb for an underdog, and in some ways, we all felt duped. I was disappointed, not only by what Joe did in terms of going to those websites and legitimizing the conversation but even more so by what seemed like such a juvenile response, going on Facebook and saying things like, 'I also slept with other women.'"
Maybe the lesson is simply: Being an asshole online is just as bad as being an asshole in real life. So don't be an asshole. Especially if you run for office.
Bike activists are split on whether to continue supporting Bray-Ali. The group Bike the Vote rescinded its Bray-Ali endorsement; prominent activists including Damien Newton and Don Ward have done the same. Activist Joe Linton says he's still supporting Bray-Ali and tries to put a positive spin on the whole affair.
"I think that the process that happened last week of debating and retrenching is healthy for the bike community," he says. "It’s a debate we should have."