Intimidation with a smile

“But it’s a nice friendly police state, isn’t it?”

That line, uttered by a pedaling participant in Friday’s Critical Mass bike ride in Sacramento, was perhaps the best summary of the Sacramento Police Department‘s overzealous response to a ride designed to promote alternative transportation.

The officers smiled, spoke in mostly soft and conciliatory tones, said “please,” used courtesy titles like “sir” and “ma’am,” and did an admirable job at keeping their cool in the face of taunting by outraged bicyclists, as a cop wearing an “Identification Technician” jumpsuit videotaped the proceedings from start to finish.

Yet just because a police officer smiles when he harasses you doesn’t make it right. In fact, it seems all the more infuriating, doesn’t it? Because beneath the “best behavior” routine that the cops worked so hard to maintain was the fact that these public servants were trying to intimidate citizens who were exercising their rights to make a legitimate and important political statement in a town that is hostile to bicyclists.

But before Bites blasts our boys in blue, some basics and a brief backgrounder: Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992 as a statement encouraging more people to use bikes, which is important to the health of the planet and humans, even if it’s a bit dangerous in such auto-centric cities as Sacramento.

The idea is to have a bunch of bicyclists gather at one place at one time and go for a ride together. By necessity, such a cluster of bikes means taking over a lane or two, which is perfectly legal considering bikes have as much right to use the roads as cars, even if it’s a bit inconvenient for the drivers behind the caravan. But then again, that’s kind of the point. Nobody ever said civil disobedience wasn’t disruptive.

In San Francisco and most of the 50 or so cities that hold Critical Mass rides—even in small towns like San Luis Obispo—police usually treat the event like a parade, diverting traffic around the cluster, keeping things moving and trying to make sure nobody gets hurt. After all, it’s just an hour or so each month, so what’s the big deal? Hell, cars clog the roadways everyday.

But here in Sacramento, not only was the event met with a phalanx of up to 10 grinning cops, they stopped the ride within a half-block of its departure from the Capitol, citing Ryan Salisbury because the stereo on his bike trailer could be heard more than 25 feet away, violating a ridiculous city ordinance. That was about how far Bites was from him, and I could barely hear it. Clearly, this was intimidation with a smile.

So there stood the 60-plus bicyclists, waiting at the intersection of L and 10th for the officer to finish writing her citation, growing more frustrated and defiant with each tick of the clock and official admonishment to get on the sidewalk or back away or whatever friendly instructions they wanted to offer.

After about 10 minutes, the ride was ready to begin again. The light turned green and riders mounted up and began to pedal away until we heard the ruckus and looked back to see three officers dragging Amber Rehling off her bike and throwing her into the back of a police car.

“She was blocking traffic and she wouldn’t get off her bike,” was how one officer explained the altercation, and again the ride was stalled.

A couple of blocks later, the ride was again stopped when John Faul was cited, a stop triggered by Faul casting a defiant look backwards as he complied with the officer’s PA system demand that he move to the right. And so it went, stop after stop every couple of blocks, until darkness descended and the police began citing the cyclists for not having bike lights.

Luckily for those cited, similar citations during last month’s ride never resulted in charges, because the District Attorney’s Office knows a bad case when it sees one. Unluckily for Sacramento, the ugly incident will probably discourage future participation. But again, that’s the idea, right?

Maybe on the first Friday of next month, cyclists can prove their theory flawed. Whatdaya say?