Policing Critical Mass

Bicyclists self-educate to forge common ground with police

Sacramento Critical Mass during April’s ride.

Sacramento Critical Mass during April’s ride.

Photo By Emily Page

For more information on California bicycle rules and safety information, visit www.dmv.ca.gov/about/bicycle.htm.

Bicyclists crowded Fremont Park on the last Friday night in April. Some members of the diverse group tooted party-favor horns as a police sergeant spoke to the crowd about bicycle safety. Brenda Meininger, one of several people credited with making Sacramento Critical Mass possible, then sounded the call to ride.

The Mass pedaled around the state Capitol, past Downtown Plaza, through Old Sacramento and back to Midtown with a fleet of police cars riding directly beside them, booming bicycle-safety commands at startling loudspeaker decibels and videotaping the cyclists after one made an illegal U-turn on his bike and immediately received an order to appear in court.

The cyclists pedaled to a Midtown apartment, where a celebration of the ride’s first anniversary (one of multiple first anniversaries in the tumultuous history of Sacramento Critical Mass) began. A police vehicle ordered cyclists—again, by loudspeaker—to dismount and walk their bikes across the crosswalk on the quiet street where the ride had ended.

The point of the ride is “to make people aware of bicycles, so you know to share the road with them,” explained Steve Campbell, a cyclist in the Mass since it restarted last year. Bicycle laws and safety measures are important for cyclists and for the police. Although cyclists and the police share the same goals, the relationship between the two during Critical Mass rides has been a tested one.

“The police presence isn’t to assist in any way but to control what we’re doing,” Campbell said. “They make it so it’s not a pleasurable experience for you, and you don’t want to keep coming back. But we keep coming back.”

The police want to ensure that bicycle safety is observed, and the sergeant’s initial speech on that April evening was to reinforce the laws of the road. But commands issued from a loudspeaker and a video recorder panning the crowd was unsettling for some cyclists.

“The bottom line is public safety,” said Konrad Von Schoe, public information officer for the Sacramento Police Department. “That’s our No. 1 concern both for the people involved in the event and the commuting public.”

Sacramento Critical Mass is organized by participants through discussion and consensus. There is no set leader and no pre-planned route, just a group of cyclists sharing a passion for two-wheels and an open road. It’s one branch of the now national Critical Mass bike ride, which started in San Francisco 16 years ago and has since spread to cities across the nation.

Campbell has pedaled with San Francisco Critical Mass. “They’re almost total opposites,” he said, when asked to compare our city’s ride to that of the city by the bay. “There’s a police presence in San Francisco’s like there is in Sacramento’s, but they’re just along for the ride. They don’t interfere.”

Safety aside, cyclist Ryan Sharpe suggested another reason for police involvement with the local ride: “I think in previous masses, it might have been rowdier,” said Sharpe, who helped take the ride off hiatus last year after a conversation with Meininger in a Politics of the Underrepresented class at CSUS. Indeed, the ride in April was anything but rowdy.

But last December, a cyclist and police car collided during a ride. No one was physically hurt by the incident, but the cyclist was immediately arrested, an event that can be viewed on YouTube.

Sharpe offered a solution to what he sees as the police “buzzkill.”

“By policing ourselves, hopefully the police won’t have to step in,” he said. “We need to keep the rowdiness down and make sure everyone has a better time overall.”

Toward that end, Sharpe said he printed out the California bicycle codes to distribute at previous rides. None were distributed at the April ride. But a revamp in self-monitoring and self-educating among the riders might just be the solution to ease the tension. After all, Sharpe said, members of the Mass were ticketed for insufficient bike lights in October, but “by November, almost everyone came out with sufficient lighting systems.”

Sharpe, like many who love the community ride, hopes common ground can be reached: “If Sacramento wants to be a major city, it can’t just shut down everything the citizens are doing spontaneously.”