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Police vs. Critical Mass

Since its inception in 1992 police in cities all over the world have cracked down on Critical Mass. Sometimes these crackdowns have been outrageous, with police assaulting and injuring peaceful cyclists, and arresting and ticketing cyclists who were breaking no laws.

It's true that CM riders often do break the law, and we're not complaining about appropriate police response when that happens. We're complaining about the unreasonable police response:

  1. Ticketing and/or arresting the cyclists who weren't breaking the law.
  2. Arresting cyclists guilty of nothing more than minor traffic infractions (rather than simply ticketing, which is what motorists get when they break traffic laws).
  3. Using excessive force to deal with peaceful bicyclists.

Documenting all the cases in which the police responded inappropriately to Critical Mass would be a big task, so here are just a few examples.

While we're at it, we should point out that not only do most rides occur without incident, but in some cases the police are especially helpful. A rider in the New Haven, CT mass told us in Sept. 2008:

"We actually have a full escort of bike police, who cork intersections, ride and joke with us, and are basically just other people on the ride. They don't decide route, they don't even attempt to influence it: regardless of how sketchy a neighborhood or a road, they just cheerfully block traffic and get us through intersections. They've been a real boon and super friendly."

Kudos to the New Haven Police, and may they serve as an example to police departments everywhere that there's no reason to see a simple bicycle ride as a terrorist threat that must be clamped down on.

Minneapolis, MN, USA

From the Minneapolis Critical Mass website:

"On August 31, 2007 hundreds of CM riders were attacked by police....[B]ikers and bystanders alike were thrown against vehicles and arrested for simply asking questions. Bikers were tackled from their bicycles without any order being given for them to stop. Those who were documenting the event with cameras or other recording devices were singled out and intimidated or arrested. Personal property was destroyed, police cars were recklessly driven straight into groups of bicyclists, people were thrown to the ground, billowing clouds of chemical irritant were sprayed, pain compliance techniques were deployed, and tasers were used on unresisting people already on the ground in handcuffs.

"Of the 19 who were arrested on allegations ranging from assaulting a police officer, the city dropped charges against 16 due to a lack of evidence. Two others pled out on reduced charges of minor traffic violations and paid a small fine. Only one person, Gus Ganley, actually went to trial. He faced quite serious charges of Forcibly Resisting Arrest, Assault on an Officer and Fleeing Police.... During the trial, video and photographic evidence taken by other participants played a key role in making it obvious that the officers involved were lying about what had happened that day when they threw Gus to the ground. The jury deliberated a little more than 5 minutes to come back with a verdict of NOT GUILTY on all of the charges the Gus faced. As it stands no known disciplinary action has been taken against the officers who lied under oath about their actions."

(More: First-hand account, City Pages, Star Tribune)

Montreal, QC, Canada

August 2006. "...the police lunged for two more riders (who happened to be non-white) and threw them to the ground, knees in the back, arms wrenched behind them, simply for riding their bikes, and enquiring what had happened to the woman being roughly shoved head first into the police car." (More: Joshua Hart)

Winnipeg, MB, Canada

May 2006. Riders say police used excessive force in arresting five peacful Critical Mass riders. (More: Winnipeg Sun May 27, May 28; Uptown Magazine; Tear it Down)

Milwaukee, WI, USA

April 2006. Milwaukee requires bicyclists to obtain a license (!), and CM riders without licenses were arrested, even though they were on a bike path and not on city streets. A reader tells us:

"Friday night, my friend came over and told me that he had witnessed and video-ed police harassment of an event in Milwaukee that evening. He said that police charged at the riders with their police SUV's and slammed on the brakes and skidded at the riders across the grass repeatedly. Sounds VERY dangerous to me and really makes me angry! He said that they actually arrested riders and took them away cuffed for not having a license on their bikes."

This isn't the Milwaukee ride's first brush with the law, see for example the report in July 2005. (More: STiTP)

Denver, CO, USA

April 2006. Police confiscated riders' bikes on the Denver Critical Mass ride. Until the police start impounding people's cars for minor traffic infractions, this is just completely inappropriate -- and an obviously childish exercise of power. (More: Westword)

Spokane, WA, USA

November, 2005. A rider writes: "Prior to a ride on November 25, Officers from the Spokane Police Department came to the Critical Mass meeting point and read Municipal Codes for Disorderly Conduct. The Officers left, and about eleven bicyclists began the ride, heading down Howard Street, with about fifteen people were following by foot on the sidewalks--some with cameras, and some as general supporters. Less than ten minutes into the ride the police created a blockade near the corner of Riverside and Post, announced their presence, and tackled people from their bikes. They handcuffed eleven people and detained them in a nearby alleyway. They confiscated bicycles as 'evidence'. Three people were released, and the remaining eight were arrested on charges of Disorderly Conduct."

Reno, NV, USA

March 4, 2005. Police handcuffed riders and threatened them with jail for minor traffic infractions. We don't begrudge officers for doing their job when they see the law broken, but the appropriate response to a minor traffic infraction is a ticket, not handcuffs and jail. Motorists certainly don't get dragged out of their vehicles and handcuffed when they break traffic laws. One of the arrestees tells his story here.

Tempe, AZ

January 2005. Riders say police tackled CM riders were who weren't resisting arrest, while arresting them for no apparent reason. (more...) And

Bellingham, WA, USA

October 2004. Bellingham police reportedly arrested six people on the annual Halloween ride. Unfortunately the only source we have for this is one rider's account, which is probably leaving out a lot of salient details, posted on an IndyMedia site. (Seattle IndyMedia)

Montreal, Canada

April 2004. "...police aggressively tore people off their bikes in mid-flight and even arrested one participant (after he slammed into their car door)." (more)

Buffalo, NY, USA

June 2003. Police say Critical Mass riders rioted and assaulted police officers. The cyclists say the police did the rioting and assaulting, not them. These articles have expired and are not free to read: First article | Second article

Los Angeles, CA, USA

August 2000. "There were police, sheriff's officers, the highway patrol. They formed a complete 360-degree circle around us. As we were trying to drop our bicycles, police approached us with batons drawn and were screaming at us to face the fence. It was clear to us we were herded to a place under the freeway where people wouldn't see us being arrested. Someone asked what we were being arrested for, and he was told to "shut up--you'll know soon enough." When they ultimately wrote out our tickets, they had a lot of pow-wows about what they were going to charge us with. What they charged us with that night--felony reckless driving--was different than what we were arraigned on. In the end, I was charged with one misdemeanor--willfully and maliciously obstructing the flow of traffic, which was ironic as there was no traffic to obstruct because the police blocked the street for us and waved us through intersections.We were held outside, cuffed, for three hours. Then they put us on sheriff's prison buses..." "Attorneys for 71 bicycle riders arrested and eventually cleared of misdemeanor charges during the Democratic National Convention filed claims Wednesday against the city and county alleging false arrest.. (more)

San Francisco, CA, USA

July 1997. This police crackdown was so outrageous and violent it attracted international attention.

  Video documentary
  Court Victory
  SF Gate articles
  Brasscheck's coverage
  Peace in the Streets

Austin, TX, USA

circa 1994-95. Your webmaster witnessed gross police overreaction on CM rides in Austin. At one point police ordered all cyclists off the road for no apparent reason, grabbed one cyclist who didn't respond as quickly as they preferred and dragged him away by his hair, confiscated bikes, and made random arrests when there were no apparent laws being broken. Asking why someone else was being arrested could get you arrested. Almost all the cyclists eventually had their cases dropped or won their cases in court, but even before this the police taunted us, "You may beat the rap, but you won't beat the trip," meaning that even if we escaped conviction they had still abused and harassed us and wasted a lot of our time. Incidentally, while the police made these mass arrests, their police cruisers were filling the streets, effectively blocking traffic better than Critical Mass could ever hope to. -- Michael Bluejay

 New York, NY, USA

This is a big case and so we can only cover it in the most superficial way. Other outlets and organizations are covering it in more detail, and we link to them.

August 2004. Police arrested over 250 bicyclists after about an hour and a half into a CM ride which drew some 5000 riders -- a higher number than usual since the theme was to protest the upcoming Republican convention. The crime was apparently that some cyclists had blocked side streets so that the mass of cyclists could continue through in an unbroken line, which is ironic because keeping the mass together blocks traffic a lot less than splintering the group up all over the city by breaking them up at each intersection. It's also ironic because in the past the police used to block the intersections themselves so Critical Mass could get through. And it's triply ironic, because all the police riot vans dispatched to arrest the cyclists did a mighty fine job of clogging up the streets themselves.

There was no police excess, at least according to the New York Times, although some might rightfully consider that arresting hundreds of cyclists for minor traffic infractions is a bit excessive, since motorists usually just get tickets rather than arrest when they break the law. (Washington Post, AlterNet, Village Voice, NY Times)

October 2004. Following the recent arrest and harassment of CM riders some of the bicyclists filed a civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD (PDF), demanding in part that the police not be allowed to seize bicycles from cyclists who had not been detained or arrested. The police department responded with a counterclaim enjoining the plaintiffs from participating in CM without a permit. We're honored to say the counterclaim quotes this website. (In explaining that they had been unsuccessful in getting riders to obtain a permit, a lieutenant quoted our advice in the How to Start a CM section, advising readers "Don't get a permit".) They even included screen shots. Now we're immortal. Here's the counterclaim PDF, but be forewarned that it's 2.4Mb.

Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of CM in San Francisco in 1992, has written a statement in support of CM and the NY cyclists.

December 2004. A judge has ruled that the police can't steal bicycles from cyclists who haven't been charged with a crime. (Duh.) (more...)

March 25, 2005. It's not over. NYC.has filed a lawsuit to stop Critical Mass! Part of the suit is specifically targeted at Times Up!, an organization that has been promoting NYC CM. The Bicycle Defense Fund has been set up to try to help those who were arrested on the Aug. 2004 ride. This will certainly be an interesting case to watch.

March 27, 2005. On the March 27 ride, police threatened riders with arrest, so they tried to leave, and were arrested anyway. Some cyclists locked up their bikes, but police cut the locks and confiscated them. 37 were arrested.

April 12, 2005. The New York Times reported on how police were caught lying about how protesters were resisting arrest, when videotape evidence showed otherwise. Another scandal was that the police doctored their own tapes, removing parts that showed the suspects' innocence. This behavior on the part of the police is outrageous and, of course, illegal -- ironically enough.

The Times reports that of the 1,670 cyclist cases that have run their full course, 91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or with a verdict of not guilty after trial.

June 2005. Your webmaster made a pilgrimage to NYC in part to ride in the NYC CM to show solidarity. Things were peaceful for at least an hour into the ride, until we came off the Queensboro Bridge and police started tackling cycists while they were still riding. It was really infuriating.

August 2005. Police arrested 49 cyclists on the August CM ride. (More at Bike Blog.)

January 2006. Cyclist victory! The police crackdown on CM for parading without a permit has been declared unconstitution.l (More at IndyMedia.)

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