NEW HAVEN, CT — All in all — despite having to drop out of college when the money ran out, juggling the kinds of jobs millennials work to stay out of their parents’ basements and being hit by a careless motorist while on a mission on his bicycle — Sabir Abdussabur has found an effective platform to talk to New Haven about racial injustice and other issues that matter in communities. It lets him color outside the lines just enough that people will do a double take and listen to what he has to say, but not so far that police will throw him in jail, though some of them may want to do just that.
You’ll know Abdussabur when you see him. He’s that guy dressed as Spider-Man or in full body armor riding his bicycle around New Haven and telling people the way they’re driving is going to get somebody hurt.
Abdussabur, 24, anointed himself in this role. Don’t call him a citizen policeman, because he’s as likely as not to call cops out when they break the speed limit without their lights going or come to a rolling stop at a signal or sign. And he doesn’t have any actual authority to “lay down the law,” as he puts it.
What he does have is the element of surprise — who expects to be pulled over by Spider-Man on a bicycle? — and the power his get-ups give him for gentle persuasion. The full body armor is a relatively new addition, and Abdussabur and his fellow vigilantes on two wheels wear it for protection, not as a disguise.
The whole thing started as an afterthought. Abdussabur dressed as the titular character for a showing of “The Amazing Spider-Man” in 2013 and had so much fun that he decided ride his bicycle around New Haven neighborhoods in costume, blasting his boom box as he went and turning heads. He also dressed as Batman and other comic book guardians, quickly discovering the costumes were disarming and people were curious to find out what exactly was up with the dude dressed as a superhero.
They let their guard down, giving Abdussabur an opening to talk about things like society’s perceptions of African-Americans and American Muslims, police-community relations and whether people feel safe — physically, to be sure, but also in speaking their mind.
It isn’t as if you “have to be a certain race to be a U.S. citizen,” he said, explaining how systemic problems in society hold some people back. “Everybody should have opportunities.”
Spider-Man, or Batman or whatever character Abdussabur assumes doesn’t get up on a soapbox or speak through a megaphone. He’s more subtle than that.
“It’s more of an interaction than anything,” he said, “and getting people to understand that people can be different and then accepting it.”
You Passed History Without Knowing That?
Abdussabur said freshman orientation at the University of Connecticut taught him that people don’t know what they don’t know and that understanding of minority struggles through American history runs pretty shallow. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers are household names, but Abdussabur said he was surprised to learn after a four-hour orientation lecture on American history that “many people didn’t know who Malcom X or Muhammad Ali were.”
Without understanding the complicated legacies of the black Muslim revolutionary and Ali, who boxed for several years as Cassius Clay — “his slave name,” he once said — before citing his religious beliefs and refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. He was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles.
Without knowing that and more, the incoming U-Conn freshmen “shouldn’t have gotten through their high schools,” Abdussabur said.
And, he said, if those college-bound kids high school graduates didn’t know the full history of the civil rights movement and all of the people who contributed to it, it stands to reason that most beat cops don’t, either.
“Law enforcement is one of those jobs where you can get through high school and not know much about black people,” Abdussabur explained, “and then you become someone who serves them.”
That can create a breeding ground for miscommunication and trouble, he said.
When he figured out people were listening to what he said about less important issues, Abdussabur decided to put himself in the center of what has been a national conversation on police-community relations. And as he began trading the relatively non-threatening superhero costumes for full body armor, friction mounted.
The first Halloween he wore armor, Abdussabur was pulled over by police who “said it was obstructed my vision, and I was a danger on the road,” he explained. Another time, someone called the cops after he rode his bicycle to a Walmart in Hamden, where Abdussabur lives.
The caller reported he had firearm — which he didn’t — and when police arrived, they were prepared to deal with an armed suspect. But they were polite and didn’t jump to conclusions, and Abdussabur think that’s worth mentioning.
“They asked me if it was OK to pat me down, and I complied,” he said. “They asked my permission. That’s pretty rare for a police officer, whether black, white or whatever race, to have so much discipline.”
The encounters aren’t always benign. On one occasion, police “thought I was threatening and radical, and that my book bag was a bomb and I was getting ready to do something,” Abdussabur said. “Sometimes it’s not triggered by a 911 call, but police officers abusing their power. One guy pulled me over and was yelling at me and cussing me out, and it went on for 20 minutes. He said I was wearing a mask, so he was going to arrest me, but what for?
“The way I look at it, if police got a 911 call, I have no issues,” he said. “They’re legitimately doing their job, and I take my mask off and we have a nice convo about why I do it.”
Patch reached out to police departments in New Haven and at Yale University, but neither returned phone and email requests for comment.
Vigilante On Wheels, In Full Armor
Abdussabur took his activism to a different level in 2014 after a Cadillac SUV sideswiped his bicycle in 2014 and left him badly banged up.
“I decided to take the law into my own hands,” he said, “and just patrol the streets to make them safer.”
He says that over the years, New Haven residents have grown accustomed to seeing him and three or four other bicyclists, who collectively call themselves Masked Maniax, on two-wheeled street patrols in New Haven, where pedestrian death rates have soared. They concentrate primarily in the downtown area, which is typically teeming with people and traffic.
When Abdussabur and his cohorts see a speeding vehicle, for example, they pull up beside them at the next stop light and tell them they’re putting others at risk. He said a typical conversation might go like this:
“You went through a red light, going over speed limit, you almost hit somebody”
“You’re not a police office.”
“Just trying to keep your car looking nice and insurance down. Trying to keep you alive.”
The vigilante patrol officers stay attuned to body language and watch for cues that the full armor might be off-putting.
“One time I did a traffic stop on a mother and daughter who were just coming from a show, and I told them, ‘You can’t double park on this corner,’ and they felt like the armor was very scary and said in a comment on Facebook that I shouldn’t be trying to traumatize people like that,” Abdussabur recalled. “We ended up having a nice dialogue on Facebook, and the takeaway is that we can’t just take into account the mental state of the driver, but also need to consider the mental state of the passenger.
“It changed how we approach people,” he said. “If we pull up and the car is hostile, we’ll remove the mask and say, ‘roll down the window and let’s have a conversation.”
Still, some motorists “get in our face,” Abdussabur said estimating that encounters are “about 50/50 gracious/combative.”
When they’re antagonistic, the vigilante traffic cops either pedal on or rely on backup support from others in the area who often inject themselves in the situation.
“Media coverage created a lot of local support,” Abdussabur said. “When we get in verbal confrontations with drivers, people riding by will jump off and defend us and reinforce the message of driving safely.”
Abdussabur can’t really ask for more.
What he’s doing is working, he thinks, and people are recognizingethey have a stake, and a role, in creating communities where everyone feels safe and welcome.
Photo courtesy of Sabir Abdussabur
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