Stuck in the slow lane
A bike group trying to make its point that bicycles are traffic, too, gets pulled over
Jordan Lubek is a third-year journalism student at UNR and an avid bicyclist. He’s tall and thin and remains soft-spoken even when discussing his frustration over his recent run-in with the law, stemming from his decision to participate in his first Critical Mass bicycle ride—a decision that proved to be much more dramatic and potentially expensive than he had imagined.
Critical Mass is a group of bicyclists who get together to ride through public streets to raise awareness about bike-riding issues—and to make the point that bikes are not blocking traffic; they are traffic. There have been Critical Mass rides in Reno since 1994. Though one Web site lists the number of Critical Mass rides at more than 400, occurring on every continent except Antarctica, Critical Mass is not an organization. There is no centralized organization or official policy.
Most participants would probably agree with a statement on www.criticalmassrides.info: “Critical Mass is a monthly bicycle ride to celebrate cycling and to assert cyclists’ right to the road.” But beyond that, participants have varying attitudes about what a Critical Mass ride should be like—how law-abiding, how antagonistic toward motorists. In many cities, Critical Mass rides have ended in altercations with law enforcement, as Lubek’s ride did.
Shortly before 6 p.m. on March 4, Lubek joined a group of bicyclists, estimated at around 40, in the vicinity of First Street near Java Jungle. The group headed en masse toward Virginia Street. It then traveled south on Virginia Street, often blocking motorists who expressed varying degrees of support or annoyance, until the riders reached the Reno/Sparks Convention Center. There, the group made a U-turn and retraced its route up Virginia Street.
“We were traveling past the Peppermill when a white off-road vehicle approached the rear of our ‘mass’ in a very aggressive manner. It was as if he was going to knock someone off their bicycle or something. At this same moment, a police vehicle headed in the opposite direction flipped a U-turn,” Lubek explains.
“The officer was right there, and he turned around, and everyone moved to the right. The officer was slowly following us for probably a quarter of a mile, half a mile or so, and it seemed like he was just trying to direct us out of the way. … It seemed like he was going to keep going,” says Lubek.
The officer instead instructed the cyclists to get out of the street.
“We moved over, and I questioned him as to why we weren’t able to ride there, as he was screaming out his window at me. He said, ‘You can’t ride in the street, you can’t ride in the street,’ and I said, ‘No one ever said we couldn’t ride in the street; where are we supposed to ride?’ “
This section of South Virginia Street has no bike lanes.
“He’s like, ‘You want to be a smart-ass—pull over,'” Lubek continues.
“I couldn’t stop right there because there were all these people coming behind me; if you stop, everyone’s going to hit you. So I probably go 10 to 20 yards and by that time he’s using his car to swerve me off the road.”
“He basically ran Jordan off the road,” says witness Mitchell Mast, who was also participating in the ride.
“After getting me off my bicycle, he immediately handcuffed me and told me that I was going to jail for being a smart-ass and that they would impound my bicycle,” says Lubek.
"[The officer] was extremely excited, and [his behavior] seemed very excessive for the situation,” says Mast.
Another cyclist was handcuffed, and the remaining cyclists were threatened with arrest and instructed to disperse. Additional officers were called to the scene.
“During the 45 minutes to an hour that we sat there, it became apparent that this was something that officers don’t do every day. They even said, ‘What should we charge them with?’ “ says Lubek.
Lubek claims officers on the scene became abusive.
“One of them made a remark, saying, ‘You need to go back to Berkeley or wherever you came from.’ Another officer moved me away from the group and, after doing so, said, ‘Those hippies smell rank; I got to move away from there,'” Lubek claims. However, Lubek says not all of the officers on the scene were rude.
Lubek was eventually cited for failure to stop at a red light, not riding to the right, and non-compliance—a total bill of $680.
“The thing that made me the most angry is that the cop totally ignored the motorist who was attempting to hit people. … If he’s out there to protect us, it doesn’t seem like he was serving in the majority’s favor. He was serving in the interests of the car,” says Lubek.
Though the officers involved in Lubek’s arrest are not allowed to speak publicly of a case pending, Jim Johns, deputy chief in charge of the Operations Division, claimed that Lubek’s complaint was “kind of a surprise.”
“The Reno Police Department has a pretty good history with Critical Mass,” Johns said, adding that the officer who apprehended Lubek was responding to a specific citizen complaint about the bicyclists impeding traffic.
“Critical Mass has a 10-year history in Reno, going back to 1995. Since then, Critical Mass have utilized the special-events policy or coordinated with the Reno Police Department. …We have even had officers on bicycles participate in the event,” Johns says. “We have actively participated in making sure it’s a safe event.”
Not everyone agrees that RPD and CM have had a cooperative relationship.
Pete Menchetti, who has been involved in Critical Mass since its earliest rides in Reno, says, “While Reno CM has not necessarily had a bad relationship with Reno PD, it has been far from good. … [In 1996 the police] intervened and made us ride basically single-file. … They also gave some tickets, details of which I don’t remember. … Attendance, which had reached 150-plus, dropped off sharply and has never recovered.”
Menchetti also questioned Johns’ claim, which could not be verified through the Reno Clerk’s Office, that Critical Mass has used special-use permits.
“There’s never been a special-use permit for any Reno Critical Mass ride that I know of. That, in fact, goes against what Critical Mass is supposed to be all about: the idea that once per month cyclists get together for a ride through the city, not blocking traffic but being traffic,” says Menchetti.
These differences of opinion aside, Johns expresses an intention to continue working with Critical Mass.
“We have helped to coordinate these events in the past, and we will continue to help coordinate them,” says Johns.
For his part, Lubek has posted his version of events on a Critical Mass Web site (http://CriticalMassRides.info/police.html) and intends to retain a lawyer to help fight his citations.
Will he be attending the next Critical Mass ride?
“Definitely!" he says without hesitation.