Critical morass

As Sacramento’s Critical Mass rides into its second anniversary, bike activists and police are still at odds

Critical Masser Jason Meggs, a police identification technician and Sgt. Robert Huff face off in a moment of trilateral surveillance.

Critical Masser Jason Meggs, a police identification technician and Sgt. Robert Huff face off in a moment of trilateral surveillance.

Photo By Ayah Katherine Young

On the steps of the Capitol, 34 bicyclists waited for Mass. Participants in this month’s Critical Mass would not have to brave the cruel streets of Sacramento alone: Sgt. Robert Huff of the Sacramento Police Department was on hand to give everyone a briefing about the ride to come. He explained that, although police wanted everyone to have a fun and safe ride, the California Vehicle Code would be enforced on both Critical Mass participants and anyone else who broke the law.

A police identification technician stood nearby and videotaped the scene, while Jason Meggs—a Critical Mass participant and Bicycle Civil Liberties Union member—stood by making his own video of the proceedings. If anything were to happen, Meggs said, he wanted to have his own footage. Police expressed similar reasons for taping the event.

“We’ve found that by using videotape at demonstrations, it holds people accountable and reminds them to be lawful,” said Sgt. Justin Risley, public-information officer for the Sacramento Police Department. “It’s the same as having a video camera in a police cruiser when we go out into the community. It protects ourselves and others.”

The next Sacramento ride, slated for May 2, will mark the group’s two-year anniversary as part of Critical Mass. The phenomenon—in which bike advocates take to the streets to demonstrate their desire for improved cycling conditions—now takes place in more than 300 cities around the world. In the beginning, rides here in Sacramento used to draw between 100 and 150 riders. However, that number has vastly decreased over time to only a few dozen demonstrators dedicated to the ideals of Critical Mass.

The history of this monthly ritual has been theatrical to say the least, including a frustrated motorist’s dramatic attempt at a citizen’s arrest, and bicyclists’ claim, on last year’s anniversary ride, that a motorist jumped a median and knocked two people off their bikes. Riders contend that throughout the last year, nuisance tickets and intimidation tactics have led to a mass significantly less than critical pedaling through the streets of Sacramento.

As dusk began to settle over the Capitol, Critical Mass participants headed out into traffic, riding single file in one lane as directed by the police. The snaking group of riders trailed through town accompanied by motorcycle police, squad cars and policemen on bicycles who would hand out citations for various infractions as the evening progressed. The elongated mismatched parade was an intriguing sight for onlookers.

A number of people cheered for Critical Mass as they drove by in their cars or walked down the streets. But not everyone was pleased by the commuting delay: One sport-utility-vehicle driver, aggravated by being stuck in the rush-hour traffic, expressed her frustration by yelling obscenities at the group. “You’re holding up traffic!” cried the driver. “We are traffic!” replied two cyclists in unison.

“While drivers are sometimes inconvenienced, it’s only fair to give bicyclists a little patch of time on a Friday night once a month to ride together,” said Meggs in defense of the ride. “Critical Mass is just one group in one small part of the city for one short period of time on a Friday night. Any city which aims to promote alternative transportation will absolutely embrace and nurture its Critical Mass ride.”

When a citation is issued at a Critical Mass ride in Sacramento, the whole group usually stops to avoid being split up. At one such stop along J Street, the group of cyclists flooded onto the sidewalk to avoid blocking traffic. Police asked that the group move their bikes because they were inhibiting pedestrian flow along the street.

Police arrest Colleen Craig at this month’s Critical Mass ride.

Photo By Ayah Katherine Young

While police were ordering the group to get off of the sidewalk, two people in wheelchairs waited patiently across the street. Ironically, it was not the bicyclists who were blocking their path, but a police motorcycle. Riders pointed this out to the police, who continued about the business of issuing the citation.

Fifty minutes into the ride, six citations already had been issued when the group halted yet again, this time at 26th and J streets, where rider Elizabeth Haskett was cited for deviating from the single-file line. A motorcycle policeman had just finished issuing her citation when fellow rider Colleen Craig asked why it was OK for police motorcycles to ride next to each other while bicycles had to be single file. When she received no answer, Craig put her hand on the motorcycle’s handlebars to get the driver’s attention.

The scene spun out of control as two police officers pulled her away from the vehicle. Craig, outraged, began kicking and screaming, as police wrangled her into a pair of cuffs and arrested her on suspicion of battery of an officer.

In the garage of a Curtis Park home, a group of Critical Massers met to discuss strategies for resolving the ongoing battle between Sacramento police and the monthly ride. Sitting atop carpet remnants—next to a beat-up couch, band equipment and assorted garage junk—eight people discussed such options as changing the meeting location and takeoff time, but no resolution became clear.

The bicyclists say roughly 70 percent of the group received tickets during the last ride. They feel like they’re being profiled and targeted and insist that cars and cyclists who are unaffiliated with the group and violate traffic laws go unnoticed while police go out of their way to give tickets to Critical Massers.

“The police heavy-handedness and blatant one-sidedness is an attack on the most peaceful and well-intended group of roadway users I know of,” said Meggs.

Lacy Farmer and her boyfriend say they both received tickets at the March Critical Mass for having “too-tall bikes.” The bicycles, measuring 45 inches from ground to seat, had been constructed by welding normal bike parts together to create a new heightened version of a standard bike. The tickets were issued for violation of California Vehicle Code section 21201(c) requiring that people be able to start and stop their bicycles in a safe manner and requiring them to be able to support it upright with at least one foot on the ground.

Though the bikes were tall, their owners and witnesses say the bikes could be operated safely and within the vehicle-code specifications. “At previous Critical Mass rides, we’d had police compliment us on our bikes,” said Farmer, who does not intend to pay her $65 ticket and is awaiting a court date later this month.

Even Haskett’s citation from the most recent ride seems unreasonable to Critical Massers. Though the California Vehicle Code’s section 21202 states that cyclists moving at or below the normal speed of traffic “shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb,” nowhere does the code specify a need for single-file riding among cyclists when traveling in groups.

“It’s a matter of safety,” said Risley. “In the past, we’ve had people riding six bikes wide in the middle of the street, and we can’t allow that.”

For their part, Critical Mass participants haven’t entirely gone out of their way to avoid animosity between riders and police. At a previous ride, when frustrated bikers couldn’t get the police to stop following them, some tied doughnuts to the back of their seats and claimed that’s why they were being followed.

Still, Risley doesn’t think that the issues between the group and police call for antagonism. “We support people’s passions to demonstrate 100 percent. All we ask is that they do it lawfully,” he said. “If demonstrators break the law, then we’re going to issue citations. It’s that simple. I hope next time, there are no citations at all.”

That hope is undoubtedly shared by Critical Mass participants. Yet, without fail, a number of tickets are issued at every ride. Will riders and police ever learn to just get along? That remains to be seen. But, in the meantime, the monthly ritual continues.