Cycling Civil Disobedience and Police Brutality

Whether disobedient groups like Critical Mass (CM) are helping or hindering the progress of cycling as a means of transportation, participants have the same rights as any other members of society. This particular group’s presence has irritated some, outraged others. CM is a bicycling event typically held one day a month in over 300 cities worldwide. It has been characterized as a protest event, aimed at raising awareness of the difficulties cyclists face when sharing the road, and promoting the use of bicycles as transportation. Since CM has no formal structure or organization, some of its members don’t see their activities as a protest, but rather as a gathering of like-minded individuals.

The rides often have no pre-defined route. Whoever is in the front of the pack leads the riders. Other times, a consensus determines the route, and information is disseminated about the chosen course. The informality of such events has led to the claim that these activities don’t require advance notice to police departments.

Although this claim has been upheld to some extent, an argument could be made that the activity is planned, whether organized or not. These are not just peaceful protesters; part of what they do is incite others in order to make themselves heard. As if this weren’t enough, they disobey the traffic laws. CM’s above-the-law attitude antagonizes police, who by definition exist to keep order.

As a result of these amorphous rides, and the tactics CM engages in while riding, the traffic along their route can be substantially disrupted. If bicycles are vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities as motor vehicles, they shouldn’t impede traffic. Disruptive tactics make it appear as if cyclists expect to receive special privileges. I would not want to be in one of the cars impeded by CM’s antics. The only time I drive is when I’m in a hurry or headed someplace where a bike or public transportation are not options. If I were late for an appointment, I wouldn’t want to sit in stalled traffic due to a group of belligerent cyclists who put their own desires before the rights of others. This is what leads to the belief that cyclists have an entitlement mentality. If CM’s goal is to make cycling more acceptable, then they are hurting their cause.

The bigger issue is the harm caused to other cyclists. Many non-cyclist witnesses of these events attribute the rude behaviors they see to all cyclists. Their anger at the CM participants translates into aggression towards riders who may not even agree with CM. Claiming to be promoting cycling is no excuse for making all cyclists targets of motorist retaliation.

On some level, CM could be held accountable for harming the reputation of cyclists. For this reason, other groups have formed to counter the effects of CM’s negative conduct. To influence public opinion about cyclists, they would have to attract larger numbers of cyclists than CM. While these groups have their place, in the long-run, another strategy should be devised, by cyclists of all persuasions, to portray cycling as a responsible and safe activity.

Regardless of their goal, CM has proponents and detractors. Proponents believe that mass rides raise awareness of cycling as a legitimate form of transportation. Detractors say that the rides are antagonistic because they curtail the rights of motorists, and sometimes pedestrians, who cannot fully utilize the roads while these events are taking place. Among CM’s disruptive tactics are: blocking traffic from side streets to allow the mass to ride together through red lights, lifting their bikes or lying on the ground in unison. This has led to hostility between motorists and riders. Violence has ensued, resulting in arrests of cyclists and motorists. And, this conflict has created tension between CM riders and police. Consequently, there have been numerous incidents involving police brutality toward CM riders.

One such incident occurred in March of 2007. Five cyclists were wrongfully detained and arrested in New York City during a CM ride. The supervising officer, Sergeant Timothy Horohoe, was accused of using excessive force by knocking Richard Vazquez off of his bicycle during the ride. In spite of his false statements to the Civilian Complaint Review Board and video showing him pushing Vazquez off of his bike, causing injury, Horohoe never faced charges and didn’t receive a formal reprimand from the NYPD.

Audio of Horohoe’s testimony is included in this video of the incident:

The five cyclists involved in the incident sued the NYPD and won an award in the amount of $97,751. Such victories are not much consolation to cyclists who face injuries on city streets every day, caused by angry or distracted motorists, with little sympathy from police. Still, small victories are better than none.

Legal reactions to incidents between CM riders and police are inconsistent. In a similar case in 2008, Officer Patrick Pogan used excessive force against a cyclist in Times Square. In addition to being removed from the police force he was indicted on five charges, two of which were Class E felonies. Such disparities in reactions to and consequences for similar actions are hard to comprehend.

Whatever anyone thinks of CM, the participants have a right to be free from police brutality and injury. It’s too soon to tell whether well-publicized horror stories of this type will have a positive or negative effect on how society sees cyclists.

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3 Responses to Cycling Civil Disobedience and Police Brutality

  1. Fenway says:

    As an avid cyclist, considering I’ve been outright assaulted by CM three times, twice as a pedestrian trying to cross in a crosswalk WITH THE WALK SIGNAL when they decided to ignore red lights and once as a passenger in a car stopped at a red light which was vandalized, I can’t say that I have any support or sympathy for them. If I wasn’t a cyclist my reaction would likely be even more furious towards these self righteous counterproductive douchebags. CM might have originally had a good cause, now mostly it’s just an excuse for jerks to band together to flout traffic laws and cause general mayhem. No different than how sports victory celebrations have turned into excuses for rioting and looting.

  2. Jane says:

    This essay makes it sound as if there were a crystal-clear cause and effect relationship between cyclists breaking traffic laws and police harassing them. In reality, police have always harassed Critical Mass, even when the riders do not break traffic laws, and the escalation of the group’s disobedience might be better interpreted as an escalated reaction to such brutality than as the cause of it. Last week a friend of mine was knocked off of his bicycle by a motorist who opened his door into him on 2nd avenue, then got out of his car and began to insult him, though he was injured and his bike ruined. This is not an isolated attitude. Critical Mass crusty punks might be annoying as people, but once a month I don’t mind being stopped in traffic if it means that we get to keep our civil liberties (protests are supposed to be disruptive) and draw attention to the idea that cyclists have a right to ride in safety which, when practiced as individual law-abiding citizens, is habitually ignored, or outright flouted.

    • “This essay makes it sound as if there were a crystal-clear cause and effect relationship between cyclists breaking traffic laws and police harassing them.”

      Actually, nothing is crystal clear when it comes to police. However, I do think that the significant number of Critical Mass riders who break the law makes police feel justified when they harass law-abiding riders. The same thing happened to your friend. He was insulted by the motorist who injured him because motorists stereotype cyclists based on the bad behavior of a few – and then use the negative stereotype to justify treating cyclists as if they were all the same.

      If all Critical Mass riders would ride cooperatively to raise awareness of the dangers cyclists face, police and motorists might form a different impression of them (and all cyclists). You may not mind being stopped in traffic by cyclists, but many people do mind. And sharing the road means taking all road users’ viewpoints on the value of their time into consideration – otherwise, you only succeed in antagonizing people and decrease the safety of all cyclists as an unintended consequence.

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