Detroit bike shop closes after alleged racial incident

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Hub of Detroit bicycle shop in Cass Corridor will be closed until next week in light of an alleged racially charged incident that occurred Thursday.

The Hub bike shop in Detroit displays a sign signaling a pending investigation of threats as seen on Tuesday June 27, 2017.

Sherry McLaughlin, president of the board of directors for Back Alley Bikes, a nonprofit that owns the Hub of Detroit, said a black male came into the shop the morning of June 22. While waiting for a bike repair, he allegedly uttered a series of racial slurs toward a black employee, she said. He was then asked to leave. That day, a man, James E. Lee III, claimed on social media that he was physically attacked by the staff.

“Went in for a bike repair and the owner and workers jumped me,” he wrote on Facebook, adding, “Horrible customer service and the worst experience I’ve ever had as a first time bike rider in the city of Detroit.”

Lee could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The shop, which denies any physical altercation, reported the incident to the Wayne State University Police and Detroit Police departments and has been frustrated by their lack of a response, according to McLaughlin.

McLaughlin was not at The Hub of Detroit on Cass during the alleged incident but heard accounts of what happened from employees. She said a man, believed to be in his 20s, came into the shop seeking a simple repair for his bicycle. A black mechanic in his 20s then took the bike to the back to work on it. While the customer waited, he started to become “antagonistic,” McLaughlin said.

“He’s saying, ‘How come you guys don’t have coffee like Shinola?’ And he’s kind of bashing the bike shop,” McLaughlin said. “And this guy started berating (the mechanic) saying, ‘You’re working for the master now.’ There were some racial slurs.”

The shop manager, who is white, came out and asked the man what was wrong. McLaughlin said the man continued to express anger, so the manager asked him to leave and told the mechanic to take the bike off the rack and give it back. The mechanic then walked the bike and man outside, McLaughlin said, and the mechanic spoke to the man.

“The employee said, ‘You think I'm your brother just because the color of our skin matches, but you just spoke to me in that way, so I don’t consider us brothers.’ That further angered the young man,” McLaughlin said. “He was told to take his bike and not come back — that he wasn't welcome if that's the way he was going to treat everybody.”

The Hub of Detroit bicycle shop in Cass Corridor will be closed until next week after an alleged racial confrontation.

The Hub of Detroit has a workstand and bike pump outside for the community. McLaughlin said the man tried to knock it down and kick it before leaving.

The shop went back to work. A couple hours later, employees were alerted to a Facebook post by Lee, who wrote he had been “jumped” by the staff, McLaughlin said. An image showed injuries of a skinned chin and skinned elbows.

That same day, McLaughlin said the man’s father came into the shop to get clarification on the incident.

“He talked to the shop manager who told him the story, and said, ‘I’ll be happy to show you our security camera footage to verify we didn't lay a hand on anybody,’ ” McLaughlin said. “The father said, ‘No need to. I trust your word. Man to man.’ They shook hands, and he left.”

The Facebook post, meanwhile, spurred threats from the community.

“There were threats of ‘why hasn't the place been burned down yet?’ ‘Someone should bring a 9 mm (gun) in there,’ ” McLaughlin said. “There were some real scary things said on Facebook that I didn’t think we should take lightly. So I said until we can get some investigation done on this, if the employees don’t feel safe going, we should shut the shop down.”

In an email, shop manager Jeff Gettin wrote the Detroit Police investigation is “getting blown off.”

“I've gone there three times now, when I was told the investigating officer would be there, to be told he's not,” he wrote. “We have been assigned an investigator at this point, but he has yet to return my calls.”

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Sgt. Michael Jackson, the investigator from Detroit’s 3rd Precinct, told The Detroit News the incident “will be investigated,” and he plans to update Gettin on Wednesday.

Wayne State Police Chief Anthony Holt said a WSU police officer responded to a call from the Hub at 2:45 p.m. June 22. The department responds to calls in Midtown, but because the shop is not located on WSU’s campus, is a WSU building or involved WSU students or staff, the officer dispatched to the scene filed the report to the 3rd Precinct for further investigation.

Holt said WSU police can, however, watch over the shop when it reopens if the staff is concerned about threats.

“We will have each car on shift pass by and give special attention,” Holt said. “If anybody shows up, (the Hub can) call us, and we’ll be there within 3 minutes.”

The shop has been closed since June 23, resulting in lost income, McLaughlin said.

“That money goes to support Back Alley Bikes, it goes to pays the salaries of people that put bikes in the hands of the city,” said McLaughlin, explaining four employees run the shop and two work full-time for Back Alley Bikes. “Now, we’re not really sure what our bank account is going to look like because in the height of our summer rush, we had to shut down two weekends and a week.”

Back Alley Bikes started in 2000 as part of the Detroit Summer program to help youth travel to gardening and mural projects around the city. Back Alley Bikes then expanded its offerings for Detroit residents and gained popularity with its Youth Earn-A-Bike program in which youth learn how to refurbish a bike they can keep.

The Hub of Detroit opened in 2008 as a partner shop to support Back Alley Bikes programming. All proceeds from used and new bike sales go toward the nonprofit.

McLaughlin, who’s been a board member for a year and a half, added: “We really just want the community to know we’re happy to be there, and we want to help serve the community, and in no way or shape are we trying to push people out of the shop for racial reasons.”

Gettin wrote the staff will contact customers who have bikes waiting at the shop.

“The staff has unanimously decided to give it a week more to calm down and hopefully have some DPD cooperation,” he wrote.

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg