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May 2, 2006

The madness of Derby cruising: There are two sides to the story — and the truth’s somewhere in the middle

BY PHILLIP BAILEYBecause I am young, black and outspoken, people often ask me about Derby cruising. That doesn’t surprise me, given cruising’s relationship to hip-hop culture, which, of course, means black.These days, “hip hop” gets added to any title held by a young black person, regardless of expertise. I’m still not sure what it was about Detroit Mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick’s public policy that made him the “hip-hop” mayor. Much the same can be said of Derby cruising. Not that it bothers me to publicly address the issue, but over the course of a year it has become one of Louisville’s more toxic dialogues, filled with broad generalizations and shortsightedness from both sides, about as enlightening as your typical shouting match between pundits on cable news channels.One such conversation occurred on Feb. 16, when West Louisville residents packed the Louisville Urban League, eager to voice frustrations over the city’s decision to end the West Broadway madness. I arrived late to a standing room only meeting of mostly pro-cruisers, featuring a panel of local rappers, disc jockeys and random youth, moderated by urban radio personality DJ Cynnamixx and the ubiquitous Christopher 2X. I was skeptical whether simply being a rapper or DJ qualified anyone to solve the conflict over cruising. Still, even with the “hip-hop” panel, I was eager to see if the community dialogue had matured.Alas, the panel provided no consensus, instead falling back on a common tactic of community activists, hip-hoppers and philanthropic basketball players since the Mayor’s announcement: bring in celebrities, create last-minute alternatives and roam to the next party. In other words, distract the people by banging the drums of ghetto populism, and leave West Broadway residents stuck between the LMPD and the massive orgy of money, cars and cloths.What makes this conversation so maddening is the polarization. All pro-cruisers are labeled lawless thugs, when the truth is most simply want a safe space to express themselves and own something in a city that commonly rejects their style, mannerisms and viewpoints.Likewise, cruising opponents are painted as uniformly old and racist or some combination thereof, when the majority just want a semblance of peace on Derby weekend.As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It just happens to defy superficial and abbreviated media coverage.We arrived at this juncture because some West Louisville residents, who either chose to dissociate or felt alienated from official Derby festivities, created their own indigenous activity. But it is now being snatched away, largely because of poor maintenance on their part, coupled with the same fear and loathing that upper class blacks like Bill Cosby display daily to poorer ones. Slow-witted West Louisville leaders, some of whom were making money from the event, never thought of taming it. Instead they allowed this juggernaut to amass. Now Metro Louisville is adopting its standard approach to dealing with poor people of color when too many congregate: blame them, get rid of them and erase them.Cruisers don’t help the situation. They unwittingly give credence to their critics when they show a total lack of regard or empathy for fellow residents who are annually held hostage in their own neighborhoods.“Stay inside,” advises 18-year-old Matt Byrd when asked what West Louisville residents who disagree with cruising should do on Derby weekend. “No one invited you; it’s not mandatory.” Byrd is no hardened criminal, just inconsiderate.Anyone who can ignore the logistical and safety problems caused by this makeshift tradition is being intellectually dishonest. And that has become a big part of cruising’s appeal — its rebelliousness, its recklessness, its giant “fuck you” to the city at large, which is mostly white. Whether we choose to understand or not (and most committed cruisers could care less if we do), cruising is seen as a birthright, an annual chance to pose in front of the hip-hop world, regardless of how much it violates the domestic tranquility of West Louisville.Case in point. I asked one cruiser, “Shouldn’t an elderly woman be able to get her medicine that weekend?” His response: “To hell with that old lady. She should know better. She know Derby is coming.”This sort of arrogant defense recalls the ridiculous arguments against the smoking ban. You remember that one, don’t you, how smokers paraded before Metro Council, insisting they have a right to smoke, and if you don’t like their unhealthy spew, then you should simply “stay home.”Fortunately, that argument lost, too. What seems to be missing so far in the public dialogue is an explanation of what cruising represents and why. Everyone is busy condemning or avoiding the issue, but rarely has anyone cared to understand how this came about. If Louisville doesn’t want to repeat this madness again in the next 15 years, it should heed the message underneath, for posterity’s sake. That is, real community dialogue should look beyond the stereotypes.But for now, West Louisville has thrown in the towel and a full police crackdown is imminent. The only ones left to tend to cruising now are the ghetto populists, those from the street who are interested in the next party but have zero interest in heading off the approaching confrontation between committed cruisers and LMPD, leaving residents stuck in the middle.For thousands, cruising is a West Louisville tradition, an indigenous creation, a part of hip-hop culture that gives them ownership of something in a city they rarely feel a part of. “It’s free and it’s ours,” says Julius Baker, 20, who says he’s uncertain what he’ll do this weekend. “It’s the only time people recognize Louisville. It puts us on the same level with other big cities. Every city has something; we have cruising.”That seemed to be a theme among the pro-cruisers I spoke to, regardless of age, education, income level or vehicular access. Cruising enhances their cultural and individual identity through hip hop. It almost sounds locally patriotic.Here’s where understanding the relationship between cruising and hip hop is crucial, regardless of our conclusions. Hip hop is no longer limited to music or dance; it influences everything from automotive design and clothes to sports and advertising. “Hate it or love it,” as one rapper rhymes, hip hop has built an iron triangle: American consumerism, youth culture and black identity.Hip hop has many universal aspects, including a heavy reliance upon location and where you’re from. For instance, hip-hop artists frequently use their lyrics to boast about their neighborhood or city. In that way, Derby cruising has turned Louisville into a hip-hop Mecca. Look at the main defense used by cruisers like Baker; it often sounds like they have a vested interest in preserving Louisville’s equivalence to NBA All-Star weekend, another hip-hop Mecca, because it keeps us on the radar in that world. Derby improves cultural status by giving Louisville the recognition it desperately lacks in comparison to other cities, which either have nationally known rap artists, national events or more cultural apparatuses of free expression.This rhetorical reasoning is noticeably similar to city professionals, politicians and business leaders — a completely opposite demographic — who supported the city-county merger a few years ago.Unlike the city professionals and business class, however, cruisers and hip-hop culture in general have met heavy resistance from their communities and Metro Louisville at large, not to mention in public opinion, local media and, most importantly, law enforcement. Of course, cruisers and hip hoppers give their critics ample fodder because of numerous outbreaks of violence. We should all pause and rebuke the overall disregard cruisers show to local residents, but to label all participants as foolish, lewd and violent crosses the line into blanket stereotyping.You can hear the pro-cruisers’ desperate need to own something without internal mayhem and external crackdowns ruining their needed cultural outlet. They are so desperate, in fact, that it seems that even the full force of the LMPD may not deter them this year. No one wants to predict a doomsday riot, but believe me when I say this: Cruisers are obligated in the world of hip hop to drive their expensive custom-made vehicles somewhere. Whether that’s West Broadway, Algonquin Parkway, Muhammad Ali Boulevard or Preston Highway doesn’t matter. They will “cruise ’til die!” — or at least until they’re coerced otherwise.“Most people never do anything wrong during cruising,” Baker noted near the conclusion of our interview. I couldn’t agree more. But cruisers will end up being their own worst enemies. By ignoring the serious issues that affect our communities on Derby weekend — violence and possible injury, the interruption of civic services and more — and then arrogantly thumping their chests by calling it a “black tradition,” well, it stinks of hypocrisy. This is not a black tradition. It is a thug mentality.Not everyone takes that arrogant stance, but enough do. So if any form of cultural expression from the “hip-hop” generation is to survive in West Louisville, reason must overcome madness. Exorcising the madness from the culture may be easier said than done, but it’s a praiseworthy goal nonetheless.“We can’t continue to hide behind the idea that the critics are old people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” says Bakari Kitwana, author of “The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture”. “e can’t continue to hide behind free speech. We have to begin, as a generation, to be more critical of ourselves.”And there is  no time like the present.   Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com