Critical Mass
by Green Earth Al

    Oddly enough it was through Mike Niman's Critical Media Studies website that I first read about the Critical Mass bike rides that happen on the last friday of the month here in Buffalo. Critical Mass bike rides happen all over the globe. Bike riders gather in one place at a certain time and once they feel they have enough riders they ride around together. The rides promote a sense of community and help make drivers aware that they need to share the road with cyclists. There is no structural organization to the event it just sort of "happens" at the end of each month. There is a strength in numbers feel to the ride where cyclists feel safe to ride together in the street. Usually the safety felt is from motorists-- you know, you feel less like some passing SUV is going to run you off the road when there are 70 of you to contend with-- though yesterday, we discovered it also comes in handy when the police show up to bust some heads.

    I learned about the bike rides many months ago but never got to participate in one since I have a weekly internet radio show that I co-host on Friday evenings. I sold my car in 1999 and since then have spent the vast majority of my travel time on a bike so I felt a strong sympathy to the cause, I just never had time on a Friday to check out a Critical Mass bike ride for myself.

    Last month my schedule got all blown to hell by helping to organize the Ralph Nader Peace on Earth Week event. I missed my Friday night commitment for many consecutive weeks. The last Friday of April rolled around and there were about 8 different peace and social justice events going on and even though I was very curious to see the bike ride I ended up supporting Faces of Iraq instead.

    It was brought home to me what a great event I was missing out on when Mike Niman wrote a column called Biking in Buffalo for Artvoice (a very funny article that I've been highly recommending to anyone who will listen). I decided that this month I was going to make it to the Critical Mass ride no matter what.

Catching Up to My Life

    I was running a little late all day. It was strange but running late all day helped me to be at the right places at the right times all day long. I was late waking up. I was way late in getting to the Lexington co-op to work my volunteer hours, and because I was there late I ran into Brian Brown-Cashdollar who alerted me to a potential job opportunity. Then I got home just in time to get a phone call from Democracy Rising and they want me to design their promotional posters for their upcoming Baltimore Civic Event (I guess I did a good job designing several posters for the recently past Buffalo civic event). I put together a flyer for them but by that time I was WAAAAAY late. I had printed out a whole bunch of materials that I wanted to take around to some local bookstores but there was no time if I wanted to make it down to City Hall by 5 for the bike ride.

    I, of course, didn't make it down there by 5. I was late. Even though I rode straight down without even making a stop I wanted to make at Rust Belt books. I figured the ride would only take a few hours and I would have to stop by after the ride was finished.

    Riding up to Niagara square was nice. It was sort of like that "Bee girl in the field" moment from that Blind Melon video in the mid 90s. There was a collection of about 20 bicyclists milling around the square. Mostly strangers, but a few that I recognized from various peace and social justice events. I took out a book I'm reading The Best Business Crime Reporting of 2002. I wanted to finish it in time to do a book review of it for June 1st on my website, but I guess I'm going to be late with that too.

    As I sat and read my book at the periphery of the assembled crowd I was vaguely aware of people riding up and starting to converse. The noise was growing louder and louder but, well, it's a good book, I was pretty engrossed in it, so when I looked up and saw that I was now in the middle of a crowd of about 50 cyclists I was, well... shocked.

    By the time the ride actually got underway there were no fewer than 65 cyclists. There was what is apparently a traditional ride around the Niagara Square traffic circle a few times while we're deciding which way to go and then we headed up court street to wander around the East Side. There's a whole lot of smiling during the ride. People are happy to be together with fellow riders and it's a great feeling to have the shoe on the other foot. Instead of an endless stream of impatient motorists endangering your life by forcing you too close to the parking lane or splashing you with all manner of road sludge, you are free to ride in safety.

    Buffalo is not the greatest city for biking really. There are a few bike lanes here and there but the roads are in lousy shape and hazardous and many cyclists that I talk to complain about all the narrow roads through the main arteries of the city.

    All of those problems were a million miles away though as we leisurely rolled on through the East side. Lots of folks stopped to wave at us like we were a parade and people rang their bike bells and waved back. The weather was warm and nice. The people were exchanging information. A lot of people were discussing bike laws so the we can become more clear on where we legally are and aren't allowed to ride and what we are and aren't allowed to do while biking.

    Apparently it's legal to bring a beer with you on your bike as there were a great many people making a political statement of some sort by toting a beer in their bottle rack. Apparently we are supposed to ride with no more than two side by side but that would have made for a REALLY long line of bikes if we would have stretched it thin like that. I've come to understand now that we can ride with up to 4 side by side in certain circumstances and that is generally what we had. A lot of people were talking about Mike Niman's Biking in Buffalo article and we were especially fond of the part that says "we're not holding up traffic... we ARE traffic."

    As the bike trip wound around the east side I looked for people I knew to converse with. I spotted the daughter of someone I work with at the co-op and introduced myself and we started talking about her mom. As we crossed over onto the west side of Buffalo I started seeking out the young woman who knew more about the job opportunity that I had learned about earlier in the day.

    From time to time the Ride would take an unexpected turn and it was just fun to watch such a mass of cyclists veer off in another direction. We turned up Allen street and I thought that was a perfect opportunity to stop by Rust Belt books. I am trying to get them listed in the Progressive Directory that I'm making and I was hoping they would be willing to display the list of weekly Peace Events in Buffalo since it's just changed. I saw the group turn up Elmwood. They were traveling slowly enough that I figured I could take stuff by Rust Belt and catch up later. Too late again. I got to the book store in time to see a sign that read "gone. Be back in 5".
Storm Clouds on the Horizon

    Yet again my lateness had saved the day. If the people at Rust Belt had been there and I had stopped to talk to them I would have missed out on all the action. I raced up Elmwood to catch up with Critical Mass. Just as I was catching up I spotted a police car stopped in the middle of Elmwood up ahead of us. Two police officers were waiting behind the car to speak with us. They told us we were blocking traffic and we told them that we were traffic. They told us we would all have to ride our bikes on the sidewalk, we told them that we were under the impression that it was illegal to ride our bikes on the sidewalk. The police officers were visibly frustrated. They really wanted us to just not be there. But it was a little late for that, we were there. The officers gave us some menacing words and got back in their car.

    We proceeded riding much like we were riding before. A couple dozen cyclists tried going up on the sidewalk but the cyclists in the street yelled to them that it was not only illegal but also dangerous to the foot traffic of Elmwood to have them all on the sidewalk. There was a general willingness to comply with the officers' orders among the cyclists but confusion as to how to proceed. Most people just did their best to keep right. However, when the police were speaking to us we were huddled in a mass of 70 people. The people in the back of the ride did not hear anything that the police officers said. They were still riding in a bunched up group as we proceeded down Elmwood. That's when the police flashed their lights and pulled a cyclist over and gave him a summons for blocking traffic to make an example out of him.

    During the intervening 10 minutes while the cyclist was being issued a ticket, A cyclist named Bernie suggested we take up a collection and Ethan, one of the cyclists that is more well known to the group, took up a collection in a hat and before the ink had dried on the ticket the young cyclist had his ticket paid for and then some. There were two columns of cyclists watching the ticket being issued. Every single cyclist had stopped and turned back when they found out someone had been stopped and we all gathered around the police to watch. The police singled out another cyclist for jaywalking and put him in the back of the squad car. They started telling us all to leave. I have been an NYCLU observer for several events and, to the best of my knowledge, citizens have the right to watch law officers carrying out their duties so I was not leaving and no one else seemed to be thinking about leaving either. Call it a general distrust on our part but there seemed to be an unspoken consensus that it was not a good idea to leave one of our own in the private care of Buffalo's Police Department.

    A great many cyclists had cameras with them. Mike Niman started taking pictures of the apparent overreaction of the officers. Two or three other people began taking photos also as a second police car was arriving on the scene. There was a tall black cyclist with very long dreadlocks taking photos and for no reason we could understand the police grabbed him and handcuffed him and started putting him in a police car. Everyone began to get very angry at this. All of the people who had been passively observing on the sidewalk began to approach the officers and demanding to know why he had been singled out and what was he being charged with. The police took a look around at this point and realized that all 70 of us were still present. They made a very desperate attempt to get the crowd to disperse but people were unwilling to leave without a chance to be heard. They wanted to know why the only visibly black cyclist was being singled out. At that point the police officers began shoving people and issued the order to disperse again.

    Since this was about to turn violent some cyclists were moving to leave at this point but there was still confusion as to whether they should proceed on the sidewalk or the street so dispersal was very slow, and a couple cyclists tried asking officers how to disperse. The majority of cyclists remained where they were. Many were blocking the sidewalk but in all honesty there was no one trying to use the sidewalk at that point. All pedestrians had stopped and were trying to figure out what was going on. There were soon four police cars parked in the middle of the intersection with their lights flashing. Their initial complaint was that we were tying up traffic, but they seemed unconcerned by the fact that THEY were tying up traffic for 10 blocks in either direction on Elmwood, which hadn't been happening while we were just peacefully exercising our rights to ride bicycles together.

    Cyclists with cameras continued snapping pictures. The police continued shoving people and grabbing people to put them into the backs of squad cars. More police were showing up from every direction and suddenly some VERY angry and SINISTER officers showed up. They got out of their cars with their clubs or flashlights drawn and were looking around for someone to hit. They grabbed Mike Niman and he started taking pictures of them beating him. One officer, as best I could tell, hit Dr. Niman on the helmet with his fist while he was clubbing him and injured himself. According to other cyclists this officer continued to demonstrate to the crowd that he had been injured. The cyclists were not fighting back or "insighting a riot" of any kind as was claimed by the police but they were trying to stop their friends from being clubbed over the head and having their faces slammed into the hoods of police cars. There is photographic documentation of pretty much all of this.

    Mike Niman shouted to the gathering to get the hell out of there. That's when people started to leave in greater numbers. That's when the officers started claiming that people were resisting arrest, because they were actually leaving. The officers even chased some bicyclists down the street on foot and one officer fell which made the police even more angry.

    In my own personal opinion, the police do not want citizens to gather for any purpose. American society does not want people to ride bicycles. Motorists do not want to share the road. I personally believe in the credo "No blood for oil" strongly enough that I avoid using oil & gas as best I can. This too is undesirable. Cyclists are improving their own health, and in so doing they are lowering everyone's health insurance costs. But all the general public sees is a bunch of hippie bike punk kids. No. Actually that's not true. There were a lot of motorists that honked and waved and smiled at us throughout our ride. But the police seem to have a genuine deep-seated hatred for us. They were very quick to anger when we did not cower under their authority and they were further enraged when we knew a little something about our bicycling rights (more than they did certainly). They seemed absolutely incensed by our unity and concern for one another and unwillingness to just let them make an example out of people for arbitrary (and possibly racist) reasons.

    As the situation descended into chaos the police seemed to have the attitude that they were going to just start grabbing and arresting whoever was closest. They shoved and beat a number of people VERY violently. A lot of people, myself included, talk about how young people don't get involved in anything or wont stand up and speak up, but the young people here showed considerable courage under fire and very good presence of mind as they began to divide themselves into groups to take care of things as best they could. Some young folks formed groups to ride each other home, some stayed to make sure the bikes that were left laying around got brought to safety and a group of about two dozen of us went down to Central Booking to try to find out what happened to those arrested.
2, 4, 7, Lights, Camera, Whatever

    This was not a news story. That was what we were told. The assemblage of cyclists gathered around the Buffalo Police Headquarters and demanded to know what was going on. We saw several riders being hauled into the station and one asked us to contact her lawyer. We realized, at that point, that we should have been calling lawyers all along, but better late than never we started calling lawyers and trying to call the NYCLU, etc. Then there was a lot of sitting around but before too long lawyers began to arrive and then channel 7 news arrived and began to take statements. They spoke to about 4 people and concluded that we did not have a story here and that we might be making it up. We told them that we had pictures of the assault but they were still skeptical and they were about to leave.

    Enter, stage left, Channel 4. Channel 4 showed up and they started filming right away so Channel 7 changed their minds and decided we did have a story after all. So naturally it wasn't long before Channel 2 showed up. I think they follow each other around in those little trucks. Channel 4 is the one station that is not located within a couple blocks of the police headquarters, yet they were the first ones to start taking us seriously and start taking our statements.

    Gradually the reporters did become interested in what kinds of pictures we had on our digital cameras so I loaned my bike to a guy named Bernie so he could go get his laptop and distribute some pictures through the news media.

    The police made us go to the other side of the street even though we were on public property and not impeding the sidewalk in any way. Across the street we began talking about specifics and debating whether or not it was likely that this was a conspiracy to harass Dr. Niman. It's an odd coincidence that Buffalo just got more than ten million dollars for the local FBI in Homeland Security dollars. Odd too that Critical Mass bike rides were harassed in Akron Ohio, Portland Oregon and San Francisco. Odd that Critical Mass rides have been going on very peacefully for more than 3 years and suddenly there's a crack down across the nation. Odd too, that Critical Mass in Santa Cruz, California had a similar instance of police violence. Note too, this all comes on the heels of the Bike arrests and skirmish that happened in St. Louis at the Biodevastation Conference. But it's all just conjecture and of course we have no real way of knowing whether John Ashcroft is deploying money to aggressively root out the troublemakers J. Edgar Hoover style or whether we're all just paranoid. I'd suggest that we're not really all that paranoid since they actually are out to "get us".

    I did my best to make myself useful. Tried to make sure everyone was alright and I handed out a bunch of flyers and asked people to feel free to write in their accounts so that I could document this event from a number of different perspectives. Hopefully this will be a living document and I will add pictures and comments to it as they come in, so check back again if you're interested.

    After people began to be released from jail I slowly made my way home. It was, of course, too late to go to Rust Belt books anymore. I had become so completely engrossed in being harassed for being a cyclist that I totally forgot that I could expect general harassment for being a proponent of peace. I was shocked back to reality though as I rode down Elmwood and received angered jeering from a guy that was very mad about the large peace symbol I wear on the back of my jacket. It feels like a very dark time for the rebellion.

    I know the police are going to try to really crack down on us next month. We are asking everyone that has a bike to join us in solidarity Friday June 27th. Ethan said we are going to invite some of Toronto's Critical Mass to join us next month. I hope we get hundreds of Cyclists and that they leave us alone next time to ride our bikes in peace.