Charges dropped against popular youth organizer and bicycle advocate

The Alameda County District Attorney's Office has declined to file criminal charges against Najari Smith, a bicycling activist from Richmond who was arrested while leading a group bike ride in Oakland earlier this month.

Smith, 39, has been into riding bicycles since he was a kid and four years ago opened Rich City Rides, a bicycle sales and repair corporative on Macdonald Avenue in Richmond. 

For the past six years, he’s also led weekly bike rides with members of the community around the East Bay serving as Rich City Rides' executive director. He is also a member of the Richmond Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

“I wanted to bring to the community the things I had when I was a youth,” said Smith. “We take youth, family, community members on celebratory tours throughout the city.”

One such bike tour took place the night of August 3 along Telegraph and Grand Avenues in Oakland during the city’s monthly “First Friday” event. 

The ride was dedicated to of Nia Wilson, the 18-year-old girl who was violently murdered at the MacArthur Station platform in July. 

As part of the ride, Smith brought along a bicycle that was fitted with a sound system and speaker.

“I brought the music bike out several times and it’s always been welcome by the community and through the neighborhood that we ride,” Smith said.

But he said the memorial bike ride went south when he was approached by an Oakland police officer. 

“I got off my bike, put my hands in the air and said, 'So can you explain this to me a little bit more?' There was no discussion," Smith said. 

Smith was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and violating the noise ordinance.

A statement from Oakland Police said that it’s “officers had been trying to clear that intersection for vehicular traffic movement and Mr. Smith’s actions interfered with that effort.” They also said his sound system could be heard at over 50 feet, an infraction under California law. 

OPD said Smith was impeding traffic at the intersection of West Grand and Telegraph avenues "by taking over the intersection and continuously riding in circles."

The statement went on to read “Mr. Smith refused to provide identification or any information that would assist the officers in identifying him to issue a ticket for the violation.  

The officers also advised Mr. Smith that if he refused to provide identification in order to cite and release him, they would be required to arrest him.”

The incident prompted Richmond Mayor Tom Butt to fire off a letter the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in which he called Smith’s arrest a case of “bicycling while black” and requested the charges be dropped. 

In his letter, Butt said that it appeared that the Oakland police statement was inaccurate. Butt provided a copy of a ticket issued to Smith by Oakland police Officer Nigel Lawson, which included Smith's full name, address and birthdate.

Regardless, Smith's bicycle and stereo were impounded and he spent two nights in Santa Rita Jail. 

“He essentially was thrown in jail over an entire weekend and was hit with a $5,000 bond for playing his sound system too loud,” said Mayor Butt.

Smith's attorney Walter Riley has always contended the charges need to be thrown out and wiped from his client's record. He agreed to represent Smith free of charge. 

“I’m prepared to take it to trial (but) it’s much better to be thrown out.” Riley said on Monday that the district attorney's office had not yet informed him that there would be no charges.

Riley said that Smith's civil rights were violated in the arrest, and that he intends file a complaint about the officer's conduct with the city and possibly pursue a civil suit. 

He said that the officers never gave Smith a chance to comply before handcuffing him and putting him in the police car. When Smith told the officer his ID was in his pockets, the officer went through his pockets and found it, Riley said.

"I'm sure that if they don't lose the video that the video will substantiate my position that they are in violation of proper conduct," Riley said.

On Monday, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said that she had dropped the charges against Smith, but would not reveal the reason behind its decision. District attorney's office spokeswoman Teresa Drenick confirmed that her office reviewed the case on Friday, a day after Mayor Butt sent the letter on Smith's behalf. 

Read Mayor Tom Butt's letter to Alameda Co. D.A. and Oakland Mayor Schaaf

Bay City News contributed to this report