Oakland’s Bubbliest Ride

Each Sunday in downtown, Bubbles Not Bullets joyfully promotes nonviolence.


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Bubbles Not Bullets usually ends up each week at Heinold's for a drink.

Photos by Carl Posey

If you walk around downtown Oakland on a Sunday afternoon, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter Anna Yamamoto and her friends. First, you’ll hear the thumping bass line of their theme song, Major Lazer’s 2013 hit “Bubble Butt.” Then you’ll see them ride by on their bicycles. As they pass, they’ll leave behind a trail of gently floating soap bubbles.

The group members call themselves Bubbles Not Bullets, and while their tools are simple—an arsenal of bubble guns and bubble machines—their ambitions are grand. They describe themselves as an “artist collective and moving art installation promoting nonviolence in the form of the bubbliest bike ride of your life.”

Last summer, Yamamoto had a vision: a group of bicyclists, all blowing bubbles. If she saw that, it would brighten her day. So in July she gathered a group for a relaxed ride where everyone blew bubbles. It started small, with just a handful of her friends. But it slowly started to grow as riders told coworkers and friends. Within a few months, the group grew to more than a dozen riders, with a standing Sunday date.

 

The group usually starts on Martin Luther King Jr. Way at Eli’s Mile High Club, where Yamamoto and her friend Quincy Savage—whom she describes as “assistant to all things bubble bike”—hand out machines and bubble guns to riders. They’ll make their way downtown, stopping at Sweet Bar Bakery. Outside the cafe, they’ll put on a casual performance, blasting a bubble-themed playlist featuring Tech N9ne and Dean Martin as they blow bubbles for any interested passersby.

Yamamoto recently perfected her recipe for the ideal bubble solution (the secret is glycerine, she said). It allows them to produce giant bubbles “the size of our bicycles.” Children adore them. After, they’ll ride down Broadway to Jack London Square, where they’ll perform again, followed by a drink at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. Often, Jack London’s favorite bar will play “Bubble Butt” to welcome the group.

As they ride, members of the group yell out greetings to people on the street: “Happy Sunday!” or “What’s up bubble butts!” One Sunday, early in the group’s career, a rider started calling out, “Bubbles not bullets!” Yamamoto quickly embraced it as the group’s name.

It also gave the group the opportunity to solidify its purpose, which Yamamoto says goes beyond the simple, childlike joy of blowing bubbles. “We started to feel like this is a peaceful protest, [something] encouraging and promoting nonviolence,” Yamamoto said. “That became a big part of why we were riding.”

Biking is a political statement, Yamamoto said, pointing out the political history of cycling, and how the group notices black cyclists being pulled over more than their white counterparts. After the election, the group went to several protests, their bubbles adding a literal and figurative buoyancy. They also attended the Women’s March in January, and later that week, Yamamoto read an essay in the East Bay Express. “Being playful is the opposite of being oppressed,” author Alice Feller wrote. “It’s an expression of liberation, a license to think for yourself. It shows that, even in the face of this dire election result, we remain irrepressible.”

 

The quote stuck with Yamamoto. “When I read that, I just lit up,” she said. “That’s really the core of what we’re doing. Being playful is powerful, and being playful is fighting oppression.”

Yamamoto has big plans for the future of Bubbles Not Bullets. The group uses dozens of batteries each month, and she wants to switch to something that can power their bubble machines though pedal power. She also wants to build a pedicab, so people who can’t physically ride bikes can still participate.

Most of all, she’d like to keep adding tiny, soapy moments of joy to people’s lives. She delights in the reactions of kids and older people. “There are so many elderly people I’ve seen walking around Lake Merritt or downtown, and their faces are wrinkled and cold, almost like they’ve been chiseled out of the side of a mountain,” she said. “Then they see us and see the bubbles. The wall just crumbles and their faces light up.”

When she can distract someone from a smartphone, she’s victorious. “I’ll see one bubble come in between someone and their phone,” she said. “That’s one of my favorites.”

One Sunday, a woman walked into Eli’s as the group was preparing for the ride. Last weekend, she was having an awful day, the woman said. “She was walking down the street on the sidewalk and saw us go by,” Yamamoto said. “There was this one bubble that just floated in front of her, and she followed it for two blocks. She said it totally changed her entire day. She just felt so much better.”

 

Published online on June 14, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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