John Jones III runs the East Side Riders bike club based in Watts, California. It’s a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation dedicated to improving the lives of Watts residents. Since the pandemic broke out, ESR has served over 135,000 meals to people facing food insecurity in South Los Angeles. Wherever the need is greatest, whether riding to homeless encampments to hand out food or helping kids spend their after-school hours constructively, that’s where John is most likely to be found.
But he can’t be everywhere. ESR’s core mission is improving the community through bikes, and Watts has a single bike shop to serve its 44,000 residents. That bike shop does its best but operates on a shoestring.
ESR is now working to raise funds–$7,000 to be exact–to purchase an e-bike, a trailer, and the tools necessary to have a mobile bike shop available to serve residents. I hope you’ll do two things. One, read the interview with John so that you can better understand him and his mission. Two, go to his website and make a donation for the mobile bike shop in any amount. When you donate, write “mobile bike shop” in the comment section.
I’ve promised John to raise the $7,000 by the end of the month by soliciting donations here. If there is a shortfall, whether of $7 or $7,000, I’ve pledged to cover it out of my own pocket. The work that he does in Watts is important and deserves engagement, and the ability to help residents with low-cost, mobile bike repair is one additional step to putting more people on the streets using a healthy, efficient, safe mode of transportation: The bike!
I’ve participated in ESR’s rides to feed the homeless, I’ve joined in at the annual barbecue, and I’ve made flapjacks for the free breakfasts served to the community. ESR is real. What they do is real. The impact they have is real.
Here’s the interview:
Seth Davidson: What are the biggest structural barriers to positive change in Watts?
John Jones: Space for the new small non-profits that are really making a difference and leading the way. We can’t always be heard because we’re on the move, including ESR. The bigger ones have the space, and the new groups don’t have a set place because we’re borrowing space so we can’t settle down and dig in. We’re too worried whether we’re going to be in the same place next month, can we still operate where there is a limited amount of space? The solution is a funder who can lease/buy a property and build so all the non-profits can work under one roof. The funder gets more bang for its buck, which means better ideas because we’re all working together. To buy and build out that kind of space from scratch would cost $1-$2M. The impact on the community is so much greater than the investment if we’re talking about long-term solutions.
Seth Davidson: What are ESR’s top three needs today?
John Jones: 1) Secure funding 2) Secure a permanent home 3) Hire staff. And we are trying to raise funds for a mobile bike shop.
Seth Davidson: Why do you need a mobile bike shop?
John Jones: To activate the whole AAA-style assistance for bikes program. Give someone the ability with a flat to call and get the mobile shop out there to help. The mobile shop doesn’t have to be in a vehicle. An e-bike pulling the tools to change a flat or pulling whatever you need for a quick tune-up, brakes, chain repair. It’s important for Watts, and as a model to have someone come to you, to employ people, and to give kids training. There’s no such thing as bike mechanic school. You pick it up at a younger age, learn about bikes, how to repair them, and it makes you employable. A young person can go to an established bike shop and say, “I’m a mechanic,” and he’s suddenly employable in a way he wouldn’t have been.
Seth Davidson: Why is Watts left out of district planning decisions?
John Jones: We’re small in area but we have over 44,000 people counted here. We are always left out because the people here don’t vote and often don’t believe in the voting system. The elected don’t see voting results from the community so they go with projects where they get the most votes because they’re going up for election again and need people to remember “I’m taking care of you.” You put your time where you’re gonna get results. You’ll see that in the district, what’s going on in the southern part versus northern part and that’s why.
Seth Davidson: How can white people be involved in Watts issues?
John Jones: That’s the hard part. It goes back to trust. You have to believe in and trust someone. You have to believe the words. Think about the abuse Latinos and immigrants took over the last four years, if their families would even be able to stay here. That’s a trust issue. Black folks have been dealing with it for years. What are you really here for? To really help? To throw some dollars so you can pat yourself on the back? Or just feel better about yourself? You tell blacks you care, that you have money, they may listen but not believe you, and that’s what’s been done here in Watts for years. Folks who say they care and when it comes down to it they don’t really care, just getting a tax write-off or showing what they did for a pat on the back, folks who want to say they want to help the African-American community, throw a few dollars this way to say they help. You have to be here for the long term, to care about this community long term.
Seth Davidson: How has George Floyd changed ESR’s work?
John Jones: Thinking about that situation, well, we still do the same work we always do, we didn’t go out of our way to say we’re fighting for the BLM movement because we’re a multi-cultural organization, we believe in all human rights and we’d like to progress and move on with conflicts. What happened with George Floyd was this. We heard the cries of the community, we saw the rest of the country, communities riot and burn themselves down, well, we had that in ’92 and ’65 and are still struggling to get back to where we were. Watts wanted peaceful protests, marches, prayer, we just wanted to do our part letting people know that if you’re going to protest, protest in peace. That’s what helped, our voice in the community showing how we feel by peaceful protest in this community.
Seth Davidson: What is ESR’s relationship with Black History Month?
John Jones: Every year, since ESR’s founders are black, we make sure we highlight these 28 or 29 days, we try to put up history people don’t know, recent history, what’s happening now and not in the textbooks. That’s our part of giving black history to the community. It gives us a platform to showcase our organization and what we’re doing, Black History Month and Latino History Month, we go out of our way to recognize the good that comes out of these communities.
Seth Davidson: What is ESR’s relationship with LACBC and other clubs?
John Jones: LACBC has had a lot of change. We’ve had good relationships in the past. With covid not too much conversation with them. We went in with them on an e-bike grant, but it seems like other bike clubs see us as competition when in fact there’s no competition. We’re all in this for the same reasons. We want safer cycling and safer streets and we all have the love for bikes. South LA and Watts, one community of bikes, one cause—fighting for safer streets and the right to be out and enjoy ourselves.
Seth Davidson: What issues do cyclists have with secure bike parking in Watts?
John Jones: That goes again to lack of space and education about cycling. If more people understood that it can help them through cycling around the community, we just need more education because not only is space limited, I don’t even think we have any public bike lockers. Maybe now that Metro is building a bike hub? That’s in Willowbrook, maybe Rosa Parks Station. It’s a couple of miles away.
Seth Davidson: How has ESR changed lives in Watts?
John Jones: We think we change lives by not only getting people to ride bikes but by secretly helping them exercise more even if they aren’t aware of it at first. They’re improving quality of life by cycling. They don’t see it at the moment but they see it when they quit or see it as they’re riding. One guy was size 48 and now he’s 40-42. Even though we have a high turnover, you know you made an impact for the window that they were around. People keep in touch and want to remain part of the organization.
Seth Davidson: How has ESR changed perceptions of bicycling in Watts?
John Jones: Thirteen years ago talking to folks they laughed at us and thought I was a crazy dude; now most of the people who were laughing at those meetings they come, volunteer, ask us the needs of the community and safer streets. We made our mark in Los Angeles, Watts, and the county to improve cycling.
Seth Davidson: Has ESR helped keep kids out of gangs?
John Jones: I would say so. We get kids at that vulnerable age when they have that choice to make, it’s unfortunate that that is a choice they can make. And now there are no sports to play, basketball, football, baseball, and so now they see they can still ride a bike. We bought some bikes and started a program, those golden after-school hours 2:30-5:00 when kids get in the most trouble, we have them here working on bikes, riding through the community. Do I wish we could get more kids involved? Yes.
Seth Davidson: What do you do when you meet a kid who wants to race bikes?
John Jones: We had a program with LAPD at the velodrome, with the Bahati Foundation and Gideon Massie. We were taking kids from Watts and Gideon was training the kids. That’s the only time we had a glimpse of putting kids onto the track. Other times we take kids there and show them the velodrome and tell them there’s a possibility for a pro career in cycling.
Seth Davidson: What do white people need to know about racism?
John Jones: One, that it’s real. You got to always recognize the problem to fix the problem. Two, don’t hide behind it. Just know there are people who really, really fear being picked out, folks that have a real fear of being singled out or bullied. For example, people who think it’s a joke to celebrate Black History Month, that’s a form of racism and a form of bullying. Someone should be able to be proud of where they’re from and their heritage. We are all people and we all need to come together to fix this problem here in America. We have to have these conversations if we want to improve this country.
Seth Davidson: What do white people need to know about Watts?
John Jones: It’s not a scary place to come to. It’s people who really need help but they need to be trained with that help and not just get a handout. They need to be helped to have skills so they can live the rest of their life. You have to want to be here for the long haul, to trust the community. Watts is a gem that needs to be shined so the world can see how beautiful it is.
Seth Davidson: How did your mom influence your life’s work?
John Jones: As kids a lot of stuff we’re doing right now, feeding the hungry, backpacks for school, Christmas events, my mom used to do in our front yard, backyard, driveway, she’d send us to places to grab stuff and bring it back. She taught us work ethic and to put others first. That’s something I chose to do. I could be anywhere but would that be fulfilling? What I’m doing now is fulfilling. If I can live out my mom’s legacy that she taught me growing up, I wouldn’t change it for a million or a billion dollars. When I was talking about giving up the club, my son said we’re rich because of what we give back to others, this was coming from a nine-year-old, while we were on Section 8 housing and food stamps. He didn’t know that but he understood we were rich for what we did for other people.
Seth Davidson: How did bicycles change your relationship with your father?
John Jones: I didn’t have my dad growing up. He was in and out of prison, he was a former gang member, I didn’t have much interaction. Whenever he came home we called it “on vacation” because his real home was prison, we’d enjoy our time and something would happen and off he’d go again. My mom finally told him to get his stuff together, he went to church, made his life change, and one day came to me with this idea about this bike club. I didn’t see it as an opportunity to build a relationship with my father, but as time went by I saw it as an opportunity to teach him, learn from him, spend time with him, teach him things he didn’t know because he was in prison, teaching my father how to live life and love one another. Sometimes I don’t want to get up in the morning but I think, “My dad can do it, so can I.” Maybe sometimes it’s just a couple of hours together but I’m still learning from him, and him from me and it gives us time to bond as father and son.
John’s work is meaningful, real, and it makes the world a better place. Donate here. Please.